Okonomiyaki is a Japanese-style savoury pancake that consists mainly of grated yam and shredded cabbage, but is often bolstered with meat, egg, cheese and other vegetables. It occupies the “junk food” (or, perhaps more kindly, the “soul food”) end of the spectrum of Japanese cuisine, largely because it’s grilled and then soaked with sauces. Primarily associated with the Kansai and Hiroshima regions of Western Japan, okonomiyaki literally translates as “grilled as you like it”. This means that the scope for freestyling is theoretically unlimited, which is never a bad thing for vegetarians.
Okonomiyaki is said to have originated in the food capital of Japan – Osaka – and one of the most well-known Osakan okonomiyaki chains in Botejyu. Established in 1946, Botejyu has spent the past 70 years spreading the love of okonomiyaki through its ever-expanding network of national and international outlets. There are even several in Singapore, but it was the Osakan mothership that I visited. The menu has zero vegetarian options, so you will need to customise your order. Easier said than done if you’re a non-nihongo speaker (and don’t have one as part of your entourage). Bring your resolve as well as your wallet, as the waitress “strongly advised” us against omitting the pork and bonito, despite our protestations. Pah!
The litmus test for okonomiyaki (or any food, for that matter) is to try the no-frills version and see how good it is. So that’s exactly what we did at Botejyu. In the world of okonomiyaki, “no-frills” often equates to the basics of cabbage, yam, scallion, spring onion and dashi stock. As expected, ours was gratifyingly crunchy, greasy, salty and immensely tasty. But the one thing that struck me most about this thing had nothing to do with taste or texture, but presentation. It was ugly.
Done well, the saucy top of the okonomiyaki should look a bit like the icing of a mille-feuille, that is, combed. Indeed, one of the most distinguishing features of okonomiyaki is the two sauces that are usually slathered on top: a dark, sweet and tangy Japanese-style Worcester sauce, and mayonnaise. The dark Worcestershire sauce provides a base layer, whilst the white mayo is used slightly more creatively. Not so this time – as you can see, the application of the mayonnaise was little more than a careless swirl. And not even a particularly tight or well-defined one at that. Pah again.
For the record, I would like to register my love for Japanese-style Worcester sauce. It’s sweeter and thicker than its English counterpart, and is commonly associated with the Bull-Dog brand. If I could bathe in this stuff, I would. Another exciting discovery was that of shichimi – Japanese “seven spice” (commonly associated with the S&B brand). What I like most about this stuff is the inclusion of orange peel, which adds a wonderful citrusy sweetness to the spice. It’s the sort of stuff that can bring even the blandest of meals to life. With the Worcester sauce, it’s a truly tongue-tingling combination.
As well as the no-frills version, we also had a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, called “yakisoba”. As the name suggests, the base consists of fried soba which makes this a starchier alternative. It was certainly filling, but personally I preferred the crunchy cabbaginess of okonomiyaki. It’s just got more character, y’know?
Finally, the beauty of okonomiyaki is that it’s relatively simple to make yourself. Well, for M it is at least. Above is a home-made version that we had in Singapore a few weeks ago. For those of you looking to try making it yourself, there are few better people on this planet to provide instruction than those from Cooking with Dog. Below are a couple of videos that show you how it’s done. The first shows how to make normal okonomiyaki (meaty version), the second shows Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Good luck in the kitchen!