Frequently referred to as Japanese ‘soul food’, Okonomiyaki is a hearty snack appreciated for its versatility in taste, appearance and personal dining preference. Stated in the name, (Okonomi meaning choice or preference), it’s perfect for those who like to choose their own food adventure. Similar to selecting toppings on a pizza, dine-in Okonomiyaki eateries often invite the young and old to pilot the making of their own savoury pancake/omelette hybrid.
The base ingredients: egg, cabbage and taro root are the key few constant ingredients constituting the Okonomiyaki batter, irrelevant of which region you’re in or whether you’re in a restaurant, on a street corner or at a festival. However, just like an omelette, the real flavour comes from the addition of either meat, seafood, cheese or noodles.
The making of Okonomiyaki can be traced back to the beginning of World War II when rice became scarce and people sought out creative ways to utilise inexpensive ingredients with sustenance. It wasn’t until the late 30’s that the mishmash of ingredients was coined Okonomiyaki. Giving name to the popular snack also birthed a rivalry among regions, as they believed that their own unique concoction achieved the most pleasurable fusion of flavours.
the most enthusiastic Okonomiyaki chef will tell you that their region’s style is the original and the best.
Extreme Foodies take note that the two main styles of Okonomiyaki originate from Osaka (Kansai region) and Hiroshima. Although far less popularised, Tokyo also has its own version known as Monjayki. While some restaurants in Tokyo will give you the option to select your preferred style, don’t expect this to be the case if you’re ordering in Osaka or Hiroshima; as the most enthusiastic Okonomiyaki chef will tell you that their region’s style is the original and the best.
The most significant difference between each revolves around the cooking method. The batter of the Osaka Okonomiyaki has all its elements incorporated before being splayed onto the steel hot plate. Whereas, the Hiroshima version is constructed in layers like a sandwich and consists of up to four times the amount of cabbage. Once the cabbage has softened and significantly flatten down, it’s common for the mixture to be skilfully flipped onto a fried egg and mound of noodles (yakisoba or udon). One thing all chefs with agree on is that no Okonomiyaki is complete without the plentiful addition of sweet sauce (most frequently compared to Worcestershire), mayonnaise, dried Bonito flakes and spring onion.
“I will eat them here and there, I will eat them anywhere!” Much like Green Eggs and Ham, Okonomiyaki is one food item that can be purchased and enjoyed in various settings. For example, strolling in a park you might see a man hovering over a large golden slab sizzling away on a metre-wide hotplate. If you do, don’t look away for more than a minute because in lightning speed he will solely cut it into neat single portions using his one and only metal spatula. Being witness to what looks seemingly effortless can leave you red faced if you ever opt to cook your own in a restaurant setting. It’s only that the chefs are so exemplary in their culinary skill that you can easily be lured into thinking you should be donning the apron.
If you enjoy playing with your food or don’t mind chowing down on what may look more like a dog’s breakfast, look for a server with hotplates lining and counter bench to DIY and invite an uncoordinated friend for laughs. Even if you’d prefer have a chef make your Okonomiyaki for you, you may be given the option to add your own condiments. Getting creative with the mayonnaise might be more your thing, because after all, no one’s ever muttered the words ‘too much Japanese mayo’.
It could be said that Monjayaki is symbolic of Tokyo’s quirky nature. Unlike other styles of Okonomiyaki, the texture is far sloppier and the construction method involves frying the main elements before pouring the batter over the top. This technique results in a wetter consistency and therefore is usually consumed right from the hot plate. Unlike typical Okonomiyaki which can be eaten straight from the hand, Monjayaki was reserved for dine-in customers only. Not to miss the opportunity for street sales, cooks began thickening their batter and rolling the snack onto a wooden stick to cater for those on the move. This cylindrical version with a thin pork encasing is known as Dondonyaki and is most commonly sold at festivals.
Aside from the fun that can be had in ordering or make your own Okonomiyaki, there are many other reasons why you should try this much-loved Japanese nosh. For picky eaters or those with dietary requirements, it’s easy to make alterations or leave off condiments, it’s fairly healthy and high in fibre and above all, it’s a cheap feed that’s sure to fill you up while satisfying your appetite for authentic Japanese soul food.