Here we are with the second challenge for Project Food Blog–cooking a classic dish from another culture. As luck would have it, we had already planned to share this month’s Ethnic Exploration with all of you, so the timing was right. We had a long list of cuisines to choose, and this time we went for Japanese. We needed to choose a classic dish, but we also wanted it to be one new to most of our readers. It was out there, and we were going to find it.
After some digging around, we discovered okonomiyaki, a savory pancake whose origin is attributed to Osaka, Japan—a place known for its fast and cheap street food. Some folks like to regard this quick snack as a Japanese pizza, often filled and topped with seafood and veggies. Like BBQ in America, okonomiyaki varies depending on the region of the country. Near Hiroshima, they delicately layer the ingredients on top of each other, while those in the Kansai region like to mash everything together into one large glob before pouring it onto a griddle. Almost everywhere, the pancake is topped with a thick, sweet sauce similar in taste to Worcestershire. There will also be lines of mayonnaise, dried seaweed, bonito flakes, pickled ginger, even a fried egg in some places. The protein can be anything from squid, shrimp, octopus or pork. The name okonomiyaki literally means “what you like grilled,” so we thought we could only be doing this dish a service by making our okonomiyaki with whatever and however we wanted.
Armed with our shopping list and camera, we ventured to Woori Market in Little Tokyo, just adjacent to Downtown Los Angeles. The first thing you notice after passing through the automatic doors is the variety of goods for sale. Produce flanks one side with a fish section towards the back, a bakery, an area to sit and enjoy hot food and various home goods for purchase near the front. The middle of the store is packed with frozen items, aisles of dry goods and fresh meat. There were so many options on the shelves that we had to enlist the help of one of the employees to find what we needed. We were torn between Bull Dog okonomiyaki sauce or the alternative tonkatsu sauce, either of which would work, but the former is the most accurate. The employee practically dropped it in our cart. We couldn’t have gotten a better recommendation.
We collected everything on the list–tempura batter, dashi powder, frozen pork belly, bonito flakes, pickled ginger, nagaimo and mayonnaise. Kewpie is the most popular brand of mayonnaise in Japan. Japanese mayonnaise is typically made with sweeter vinegar compared to American versions that utilize plain, distilled vinegar. That would explain the slight difference in its taste. To offset what could easily become a heavy snack, we decided to toss in more veggies for crunch and color. Our okonomiyaki would have shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and brightly colored bell peppers amongst shreds of cabbage to fill it out.
The only thing that we were somewhat apprehensive about was the amount of dashi powder that typically goes in a recipe. Dashi is a granulated or fine powdered fish stock used as the base for many Japanese dishes, including miso soup. The brand we purchased had a strong fishy odor, which did not appeal to our tastes as much, so we decided to go light in its application. We already planned to top our okonomiyaki with shaved fish flakes called bonito, so we could make up for the flavor on that end. The most interesting ingredient on the list was the nagaimo–a very starchy Japanese yam that looks like a thick root. Many Japanese markets will sell it fresh. If not, reconstituted yamaimo powder will do. Some recipes will suggest substituting a Russet potato if you’re really in a bind, but after playing with a fresh nagaimo you’ll see the two are not interchangeable. Grated nagaimo is sticky, gooey and full of moisture that binds the other ingredients together. Use gloves when peeling and grating nagaimo as it appears to cause a bit of itching once it hits the skin.
Other than prepping a few of the vegetables, this is a one bowl dish. Once everything is combined, the okonomiyaki are cooked over a hot griddle in batches. We pooled the batter on the griddle grates, topping each one with long strips of pork belly. Oh so carefully, the okonomiyaki were lifted, flipped and brushed with the traditional sauce. Bonito flakes were sprinkled on top, fluttering and dancing over the surface as they hit the heat. Bright pink strips of pickled ginger found their way on top for flavor and texture. Finally, the mayonnaise and sprinkles of nori rounded off our okonomiyaki. One more lift off the griddle, and it was time to eat.
This is not a pretty dish. It’s hard to make okonomiyaki look great on a plate, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s supposed to be big and ugly with no care for aesthetics. The bigger explosion of colors, shapes and textures, the better. We were timid on first bite, but as we continued to chew, we quickly admitted it was good. Really good. It wasn’t long before the rest of the okonomiyaki was devoured, and any uncertainties disappeared. Okonomiyaki is a fairly forgiving snack that can be dressed up or down as you choose. Swap bacon for pork belly, add dried shrimp, cheese, noodles or whatever gets you excited. As the word appropriately demands, it’s “what you like grilled”, so have fun exploring the possibilities.
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Los Angeles, CA 90013
This post is our second entry to the Project Food Blog contest hosted by Foodbuzz.com. We hope you will vote for us to head to round three! Voting for this round will open at 6:00 am PST Monday, September 27th and end at 6:00 pm PST on Thursday, September 30th. View our profile here, and then vote!
Okonomiyaki– Serves 4 (adapted from Just Hungry)
5 ounces peeled and grated nagaimo (or reconstituted yamaimo powder)
2 tablespoons dashi powder
1/2 cup flour
4 tablespoons tenkasu (fried tempura batter bits)
2 cups cabbage, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
1/2 yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 orange bell pepper, thinly
1 carrot, thinly sliced
3/4 cup shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
6-8 thin slices pork belly
4-6 tablespoons beni shouga (pickled ginger)
Mayonnaise (Kewpie brand preferred)
Okonomiyaki sauce (You can substitute tonkatsu sauce if necessary.)
Bonito flakes (dried, shaved fish)
Furikake (a mix of dried seaweed, sesame seeds and other flavorings)
1. Make half a package of tempura batter according to the box instructions. Cool on paper towels, then chop into small bits. Set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, combine nagaimo, dashi and flour with two eggs. Fold in tempura bits, cabbage and the last egg. Stir in the scallions, peppers and mushrooms until well combined.
3. Brush about one tablespoon of oil over a griddle heated to 300 degrees. When hot, gently ladle a quarter of the batter on the hot surface. Place two pieces of pork belly on top of the pancake, then cover with the top of a pot. Cook for about five minutes, or until the pork begins to lighten in color and turn white. Carefully flip the patty—use two spatulas if necessary to prevent a broken okonomiyaki.
4. Heat the other side for about three minutes before adding the toppings. Using a pastry brush, spread an even amount of okonomiyaki sauce over the top while it cooks. Decorate the surface with the mayonnaise, ginger, bonito flakes, and furikake. Remove from pan or griddle and serve immediately.
Click HERE for the printable recipe.