Okonomiyaki

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Okonomiyaki – unadorned (no sauce or toppings), plain.

We first encountered okonomiyaki in 1998 on our JICA-sponsored trip to Japan. One afternoon, the organisers brought us to an okonomiyaki restaurant for lunch.

We were seated at a table with a hot cooking surface in the middle.

Then we were given a bowl of chopped up cabbages in a batter, some meat if I recall, and some spatulas.

Impatient or hungry or both, we toss the ingredients onto the hot surface, and as Chinese are wont to do, started stir-frying the food. Okay, I did not, because I saw that the cabbage were mixed in with some batter (something like the texture and consistency of pancake batter), and I suspected that it was not supposed to be stir-fried. I tried to stop my table-mates, but she (in particular) was stir-frying with gusto.

It turned out that okonomiyaki is best described as “Japanese cabbage pancake”. At least the ones we were supposed to be cooking and eating. I believe we were in Osaka then, and this was Osaka-style okonomiyaki. There are various styles of Okonomiyaki. One style fries the batter separately into a crepe, then the cabbage or other ingredients were placed on top, and it somehow all sticks together.

Anyway, we attacked the okonomiyaki and got it cooked in double-quick time (advantage of stir-frying – it cooks things really fast!)

But… it was not okonomiyaki.

A few years later, I found an okonomiyaki restaurant in Singapore. Iroha 168 at Orchard Hotel Shopping Centre. It was authentic Kansai-Osaka style okonomiyaki.

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Cast Iron pans

I did note though, that the hot plates in front of the customers had been turned off, and were not in use anymore. Perhaps the Chinese tendency to stir fry everything also struck Iroha 168.

And so to prevent customer from embarrassing themselves, the chef turned off the hot plates.

Okonomiyaki seemed easy enough and I tried it at home once or twice.

Then I found okonomiyaki flour/batter mix at Daiso. And I bought some cast iron pans. Small ones.

Also from Daiso, but this was years ago, when Daiso first opened their store at IMM, and they carried amazing goods including cast iron ware.

You can’t find it at Daiso anymore.

The recipe is quite easy.

1 cup of Okonomiyaki flour mix (comes in 300 gm packs. One cup is about 50 gms)
3/4 cup of water
1 small egg (or large egg if you like it eggier)
And a handful of chopped cabbage.
Okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, nori flakes, and bonito flakes.

Optional ingredients:

chopped onions, minced garlic, chopped green onions/spring onions/scallions, shichimi togarashi, bacon, ham, prawns/shrimps, crabsticks, beef (minced, corned, strips), and basically anything you like.

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When the first side is done (batter is cooked and and holding together) flip the pancake.

Mix the batter (water, flour mix, egg) with the cabbage, and spread the mix on the oiled frying pan (cooking oil, 1 tablespoon, or you can use butter. Or ghee!). In my case, the pan is small enough that the pancake mix goes to the edge. If you are using a larger pan, try to get the pancake in a roundish shape. Fry it on low-medium heat. If your pan has a cover, use it.

After about 3 – 5 minutes, lift the edge to see if the pancake batter has set. If not leave it for another 2 minutes. If i has set, turn it over.

Fry another 3 – 5 minutes, then plate it.

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Plated okonomiyaki with sauce.

Add the Okonomiyaki sauce, then mayonnaise (I don’t like mayonnaise, so I didn’t add that).

Then sprinkle the seaweed flakes, and the bonito flakes.

The best part of it is watching the bonito flakes waving in the heat like they were alive.

If you can’t find okonomiyaki flour, you can replicate it. Just use plain flour, replace the water with milk, and add salt and sugar to taste. And a pinch of baking powder and half a teaspoon of corn starch (corn flour).

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Okonomiyaki with bonito flakes. Nori flakes under it all.

For the okonomiyaki sauce, it’s similar to tonkatsu sauce which may be easier to get. Bulldog sauce (Japanese brand) will also do. The sauce should be thick, not watery.

For the optional ingredients, you can just add it all into the batter.

Spring onions, onions, garlic can all go in.

But if you like to make things more complicated, I saute the garlic first, with some corned pork (tulip brand, NTUC, $5:15) in the pans, then pour the cabbage batter over that.

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Close-up of the okonomiyaki with the green nori flakes, and the bonito flakes on top.

Then I transfer it to a plate (this is how I “flip” the pancake, as the cast iron pan is not conducive to flipping “in-pan”), added more corned pork, then transferred the flipped pancake back into the pan on top of the corned pork. If you have other ingredients like prawns/shrimps, crabstick, bacon, salmon, etc, place them in the pan, then transfer the pancake back onto the additional ingredients.

If you like it spicy, add shichimi togarashi (7-chillis/spices powder)

If you can’t find nori flakes or bonito flakes, you may be able to find Furikake which is a mixed of spices usually with seaweed which the Japanese use for sprinkling on rice. It’s not exactly the same but it should be a good enough substitute. I’ve found furikake with salmon, katsuo (which is like bonito flakes I think), egg (tamago), sesame, and nori (seaweed).

Okonomiyaki looks good, and has great range for experimentation. I’ve added pepper, spices, tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, togarashi, cayenne, paprika, and probably a few more things I don’t remember into the batter. Maybe I’ll try tequila. For toppings, you can try pizza-type toppings (salami!), cheese, prosciutto, ham, spam, corned beef, etc

It makes a good meal by itself. And it looks really presentable. And impressive. Especially if you have a cast iron pan (or two).

 

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Okonomiyaki and Yakisoba at a restaurant in Nara, Japan.

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