Japanese

You'll Love Okonomiyaki (Even If You Can't Pronounce Its Name)

August 31, 2015

Okonomi-what?

Embrace the language barrier by asking fewer questions and tasting with faith, and you'll be rewarded with a savory cabbage Japanese pancake.

A language barrier —especially one that’s difficult to traverse using Google Translate on your phone under the table—has many benefits, but my favorite is that it forces an adventurous palate. If you cannot confidently ask for directions to the bathroom, it’s likely that you will not be able to identify every ingredient in your dinner either. What is this sauce made of? There is just no knowing.

And despite the initial distress this causes the hyper-curious and menu-micromanaging among us (hello, speaking), it ends up being pretty lovely. A kind of peace comes over you once you take a vow to cluelessly put whatever ends up on your table into your mouth; you are at a restaurant, and restaurant people know what they are doing. Trust that you are in good hands. Eat the brown stuff, whatever it may be.

I had okonomiyaki for the first time at the tail end of a trip to Japan, by which point my family and I had given ourselves over to the Foreign Country Food Gods. We did not regret this: Everything was good, salty, fishy, pickled, brightly colored, composed of vegetables I couldn’t name and meat I wasn’t sure I wanted but that I enjoyed nonetheless.

So one afternoon, when we found our way into a counter-service spot with two enormous, sizzling griddles and an impressive array of squeeze-y sauce bottles, the four of us were ready for anything. The heaping bins of cabbage and piles of eggs were a little confusing, but it smelled like short order fry cook heaven. A screen-printed sign above the cash register said OKONOMIYAKI, and beneath it, helpfully, IT’S A PANCAKE. This felt like a bounty of information, so we ordered two.

With bacon cooked into one side, it's hard for this green-onion-studded batter to fail. The condiments push it over the edge: sweet/salty/sticky like you might be used to with Japanese food, then topped with creamy Kewpie mayo and a bunch of crunchy randomness. The dashi stock (made with dried kelp and bonito flakes) gives the pancake base the teeniest hint of the sea.

I fed this to my roommate who, bless her heart, has adopted a language barrier outlook on the things I bring out of our kitchen. I’m not even going to ask, she said, cutting a big hunk out of the side of the pancake and putting it directly into her mouth. And then she said, I get this whole thing, right?

Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese Pancake)

Makes 1 big pancake, large enough to split

For pancake:

1/3 teaspoon dashi stock powder
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg
3 tablespoons tenkasu (tempura bits)
2 cups cabbage, chopped into thin strips
1/3 cup chopped green onions
3/4 strips bacon, chopped into 2 to 3 inch-long pieces

For serving:

Kewpie mayo (regular works fine too!)
Okonomi sauce (or a homemade version: 3 tablespoons ketchup plus 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce plus 1/2 teaspoon honey)
Aonori (seaweed flakes)
Sesame seeds

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

First and last photo by Bobbi Lin; second by Alexandra Stafford

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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16 Comments

Q September 8, 2016
You are missing the most important ingredient: mountain yam. It is not authentic without mountain yam.
 
aimi September 7, 2016
Bacon?? Talk about Americanized.. In 10yrs living in Japan I have never seen bacon in okonomiyaki..
 
Yosh B. September 2, 2015
if u live in LA u can head to the south bay and visit GAJA<br />2383 Lomita Blvd, Ste 102, Lomita, CA 90717<br />it's the only place u can actually make it urself at the table just like they do in japan.
 
Jenny T. September 2, 2015
If people would just look at the word and say the letters, they could pronounce it. It is transliterated so that westerners can pronounce it. The "even if you can't pronounce its name" thing smacks of xenophobia. I think there is a tendency to look at a foreign word and refuse to try to pronounce.
 
Christopher L. September 5, 2015
I heartily agree. The Japanese language is typically quite English-friendly, so to speak, since the "alphabet" consists of a relatively short list of consonant-vowel combinations that is easily dwarfed by all the awkward combinations of letters in the English language. As "cute" as it might sound to admit lack of skill in speaking a foreign language, this thing called *trying* is typically appreciated by native Japanese speakers.<br /><br />Furthermore, it would be instructive to the reader to mention that "okonomiyaki" is a portmanteau (fusing of two words) of "okonomi", meaning "what you like", and "yaki", meaning "something grilled/cooked". Even a simple Google search would have led you to this explanation, which would have 1) blunted the essentialist nature of the piece, which reduced a dish whose very name allows customization to a single version decided by the naïve author, and 2) given the reader flexibility in the recipe itself. Pretty disappointed in this piece and the accompanying recipe for one of my favorite techniques.
 
Okonomi_Yakity September 2, 2015
This is a great looking and easy recipe. If you are interested in a more authentic version, you will want to add mountain yam (nagaimo or yamaimo) which adds flavor but also a unique gooey texture. There is special okonomiyaki flour that has powdered yam incorporated or you can grate it fresh and use all purpose flour. Interested folks can explore okonomiyaki recipes in-depth here. http://okonomiyakiworld.com - Enjoy!
 
boulangere September 3, 2015
Very interesting. Thank you for the link
 
sherdie September 2, 2015
An easy way to remember and pronounce the name is also what it is in many Japanese households - a way to use up odds and ends in the fridge - so in my family we call it "economy-yaki" ;)
 
orinoco W. September 1, 2015
Thanks for this explanation! Your post made me grin; a couple of friends just got back from vacation in Korea. They don't speak Korean or read it, so for meals they were reduced to walking into an eatery, having a look at what other diners were eating, and pointing. As my friend Diego said, "We had no idea what it was when they brought it, and after we ate it, we still didn't know! It was always delicious, though!"
 
Sam1148 September 1, 2015
Putting things in a waffle maker is hot now. <br />I think we shall waffle this.
 
Jan W. September 1, 2015
I absolutely love Okonomi-yaki in all of it's various incarnations. It really is a street food, but for convenience's sake it has moved into small specialized restaurants in Western and Central Japan. If you ever go to the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe) or Chugoku (Hiroshima/Okayama/Shimonoseki/Tottori), you can try either Osaka-style or Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, and numerous sub-regional variants of them. Hiroshima-style has layers of ingredients built up one after the other, then bonded with batter, and it includes yakisoba noodles (it is also customary for those who like calories to have it crowned with a fried egg). Osaka-style has everything mixed together with the cabbage and batter providing a structure for everything else mixed inside. <br /><br />There is actually a popular okonomiyaki food theme park in the Hiroshima-area, but I didn't go there on my visit.
 
Greenstuff August 31, 2015
Love okonomiyaki! And it's really not so hard to pronounce: o-ko-no-mi-ya-ki
 
boulangere August 31, 2015
Sorry, forgot to include the link: food52.com/recipes/12352-okonomiyaki<br />
 
boulangere August 31, 2015
I've been making Midge's Okonomiyaki for several years. With tender, sweet shrimp and the subtle crunch of sesame seeds, it is divine. Her simple sriracha-laced dipping sauce is the crowning touch. Food52 must have thought so, too, as it won the Best Street Food contest, and deservedly so. When I shared a batch (ok, two pancakes) with a fellow chef who is Japanese-Hawaiian, he said Midge's are almost as good as his mother's.
 
kimikoftokyo August 31, 2015
I love ikon imitate so much !!! It's like a Chinese or Korean pancake with flare.
 
Allyn August 31, 2015
We LOVE okonomiyaki and make it fairly regularly, especially in cooler weather. One of those rare perfectly satisfying dishes. Love and Lemons has an excellent recipe for it as well