When I was a small child, between the ages of three and six, my mother on occasion used to make okonomiyaki for the family. It was a simple recipe, shredded cabbage and some other vegetables cooked into a pancake on the griddle. They were a favorite of everyone, except me. (This might damage my rep but I used to call them okonomi-yucky). I can only say that I was very young and wasn't overly fond of cabbage. However once I was grown up and had started making Japanese food myself, I tried making okonomiyaki from the same cookbook my mother used. Of course, they were amazingly delicious.
The recipe came from a book called The Tassajara Bread Book, which is a wonderful collection of the recipes that were present all through my childhood (our copy is falling to bits). I recommend it, but it isn't exactly an authentic Japanese recipe. So I tracked one down on JustHungry.com, one of my all time favorite blogs. Her recipe was for Osaka style, which is the most popular variant of okonomiyaki in Japan.
The okonomiyaki is made with a batter of shredded nagaimo yam, eggs, flour, and cabbage, with a few other optional ingredients like green onions, pickled ginger and dried shrimp. Once cooked, toppings are added, usually an okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), aonori (shredded nori), and Japanese mayo. In case you can’t tell, there are a lot of flavors competing for centerstage.
This dish was the most difficult for me so far, the troubles starting as soon as I began looking for a nagaimo yam. I should clarify that it’s not really a yam in the way that you might be thinking. It looks more like a cross between a potato and a daikon radish and when grated it immediately turns to sticky, frothy liquid. If I’m making it sound unpleasant, that’s more or less what I was going for. In Japan they sometimes eat this substance raw, something that I don’t think I could have forced myself to do, but in this recipe it is used to make the okonomiyaki springy.
I looked everywhere I could think of, including driving three hours to the nearest Asian grocery store, but still couldn’t get my hands on one of these. It took me about a year to find one on Mitsuwa.com, where it cost seven dollars but the shipping was twenty. I forked over the cash (getting some other fun stuff as well) and within five days had my root.
All the other ingredients were hanging out in my cupboard as I had bought them a long time ago, so now I just had to buy the fresh stuff. Cabbage was easy, as were green onions, the next snag was trying to find thin cut pork belly. You would think that this would be pretty simple, but no, the bacon maniacs have caused it to be that every scrap of pork belly in America had been used for bacon. Or at least, that’s how I felt while I went over every meat department in my area with a fine toothed comb. In the end, I decided that since it was optional, I’d opt out of the pork belly and go vegetarian before the stress got to me.
While cooking the okonomiyaki, which I’m going to state right now are actually really easy, I nearly had no less than four mental breakdowns. First I realized that I had accidentally thrown out my food processor’s grating attachment, then I used the manual one to grate my finger, next I didn’t slice my cabbage thin enough, and lastly the whole look of my okonomiyaki was blah. After spending a few days sulking, I decided I’d better have another go at it. The second time I found that using a grater to shred most of the cabbage made the batter more like the consistency that I was looking for. Everything went okay this time and my sister assured me that they were delicious. Why did I need her assurance? Well the stress had gotten to me and I had completely lost my appetite, simply nibbling, hamster-like, on the corner of a slice.
I’m telling you this, not at all because I want to discourage you from cooking okonomiyaki, but because I hope to present an accurate account of the adventure of learning to cooking Japanese cuisine. It’s not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes a perfectly simple recipe with make you feel like you’ve gone three rounds with a bear. That’s okay, it’s bound to happen at some point. The important thing is to jump back into the ring because the next time you’ll knock that ursine foe on its butt. As I write this I am preparing to go into the kitchen and make a dish that is about four times as complex as okonomiyaki, and I’m excited to sink my teeth into it (pun intended).
Until next time, never give up, always get back in the kitchen.
Post Script: The bad luck continued into writing this post. The internet has been dropping my connection left and right. With any luck I'll be able to publish by Christmas.
Everything went okay the second time, except that I had a brain fart with my camera and didn’t film adding the cabbage. I patched together the video with footage from the last film of my unsuccessful okonomiyaki, which is why the cabbage is huge one minute and neatly grated the next.