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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?
Makes 1 big pancake, large enough to split
1/3 teaspoon dashi stock powder
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
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
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)
First and last photo by Bobbi Lin; second by Alexandra Stafford