Okonomiyaki is the epitome of Japanese comfort food, a dish that’s readily available throughout Japan. At first glance, it looks like an example of fusion cuisine where the western technique of making crepes was incorporated into the yaki culinary technique of cooking on a hot iron grill. In this video link to YouTube that features the production of various types of Japanese street food at various yatai or food stalls, at the 8 minute and 27 second mark, you can watch the production of a Hiroshima style of okonomiyaki.
In the video, crepe batter is ladled and then spread onto a flattop grill. As the crepe is cooking various toppings are added. In this video the cook mounds a variety of vegetables such as shredded cabbage and chopped onion. He makes a slight nest in the center of the vegetables and cracks a raw egg into the hollow. He then spoons crepe batter over the vegetables. The batter settles unevenly but as you’ll see, the weight of the batter will help to hold the filling in place.
When the crepe on the bottom is fully cooked to a crispy golden brown, the entire product is deftly flipped. After the bottom crepe is cooked, each portion is cut into sections and the okonomiyaki is plated. Prior to serving this to a customer, the product is brushed with an umami sauce. A simple sauce made be made by mixing 3 Tbsp. of ketchup with 1 Tbsp. each of Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce. Some recipes I’ve seen have also included a touch of honey. It is then garnished with Japanese mayonnaise (which includes MSG) and topped with furikake, a mixture of crumbled or ground dried fish, seaweed, toasted sesame seeds, sugar, and salt.
The term okonomiyaki literally translates as whatever you want cooked on a grill. In other words, the toppings that can be added to this Japanese crepe are only limited by your imagination or the ingredients that are readily available to a cook.
What’s interesting about okonomiyaki is that the Japanese crepe was first introduced in Osaka during the Edo period of the 17th century. During this time, Portuguese explorers had discovered Japan and in 1571 they successfully negotiated for trading rights through the port at Nagasaki. Historical records show that trade (through smuggling operations) began as early as 1543.
In exchange for silk, tea, and other commodities, they traded silver, cannon, and firearms. During the 30 years that followed, Portuguese cultural influences spread throughout Kyushu, “the nine provinces” in the area around Nagasaki.
Portuguese galleons influenced Japanese ship building. Under the direction of the Shogunate, several Japanese galleons were built. Wealthy Samurai lords commissioned blacksmiths to produce the first nanbando, a metal cuirass similar to the breastplates worn by Portuguese soldiers. Portuguese art influenced nanbannuri, a type of lacquer that was decoratively hand painted to European tastes. Portuguese priests also began spreading Catholicism through the nine provinces and the growing influence of Christianity eventually forced the Shogunate to expel all foreigners upon “pain of death.”
Is it possible that a cook in Osaka (which is not part of the nine provinces and lies 465 miles from Nagasaki) learned how to make the first crepe from a European? Although it was unlikely that a European would ever have been in Osaka as the Shogunate had restricted all foreigners to Kyushu, it’s possible that a Japanese cook may have traveled to Osaka or learned how to make a crepe from someone who had interacted with the Portuguese.
It’s also entirely possible that the first production of crepes in Osaka was a fortuitous coincidence, much like the creation of pasta in Italy which has falsely been attributed to Marco Polo’s discoveries in China.
In Osaka, crepes were initially produced as a snack. Chopped onions were spread over the cooking crepe and the entire product was folded over. In time, the Japanese began adding sweet ingredients such as honey or sweet red bean paste.
The first okonomiyaki wasn’t produced until sometime during the 30’s in Osaka. Unlike the video which features a Hiroshima style production, in Osaka the fillings are mixed into the crepe batter before the batter is placed on the grill. The production of okonomiyaki in Osaka (pictured below) resembles the production of Bubbles and Squeak in England where mashed potatoes are mixed with leftover chopped vegetables which are then pan fried to crispy perfection in patties. In point of fact, many Osaka recipes add shredded potatoes or yams to the batter whereas okonomiyaki produced in other areas of Japan do not.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the destruction of so much of Japan’s infrastructure left many Japanese on the brink of starvation. To alleviate starvation, the U.S. military occupation government ordered the delivery of food supplies from the United States which included flour. Given the shortage of rice in Japan, the production of okonomiyaki became more popular. As a curious side note, since the Japanese did not have a strong culinary tradition of producing bread, they used the flour to make crepes as well as noodles which included the variety that became popularized for instant Ramen.
Throughout Japan, there are many regional styles of okonomiyaki. Osaka as previously mentioned, mixes various fillings into the crepe batter rather than layering them on top. Monjayaki (Tokyo style – pictured below) grills the main ingredients first. Crepe batter is then poured over these ingredients and additional grilled food is placed on top. Some chefs use ring molds to form this product while others simply use the vertical sides of their offset spatulas to quickly push the okonomiyak into place.
The Hiroshima style (featured in the video) is a layered crepe that’s made with various fillings which always include shredded cabbage as one of the ingredients. Negiyaki style is similar to Hiroshima but uses green onions instead of cabbage.
If you’re ever in Tokyo and you’d like to try some okonomiyaki, I’d strongly recommend that you visit a restaurant called the Asakursa Okonomiyaki Sometaro. This restaurant is slightly off the beaten path for tourists and is housed in an old building that looks like a bit like a traditional Japanese home that came off the set of the old TV mini-series, Shogun.
The restaurant features wooden floors lined with traditional tatami floor mats. Customers are expected to remove their shoes, so if you ever visit this place, DON’T GO BARE FOOT as bare feet on floors is considered quite unhygienic in Japan (nor will the staff seat you if you choose to be obstinate about this).
After removing their shoes and leaving them near the doorway, customers are seated on the floor at low tables that include a flat griddle iron. Unlike yatai stalls where a cook will make your okonomiyaki to order, at the Sometaro, customers make their own food. Although the staff don’t speak much English, or least they didn’t in the late 90’s when I was there, there is a helpful laminated guide that’s printed in English. The guide also features step by step pictures and the smiling staff will be happy to show you how to make okonomiyaki if you need any assistance.
In addition to a crepe batter, customers may order various ingredients … fish, shrimp, meat, vegetables, noodles and so forth. There are also a variety of beverages available including tea and beer.
The Sometaro has been around since 1937 though it should be noted that the original building was destroyed following an air raid during World War II. The restaurant was started by a housewife named Haru who was born in Osaka. After her husband was drafted into military service, she converted the first floor of their home into a restaurant which was named Sometaro after her husband.
Her husband never returned home from the war and after her home was destroyed, one of the only items she was able to recover from the debris was an iron griddle. The widow restarted her business working out of an army barrack and began selling okonomiyaki. The current restaurant is still family owned. When I was there in the late 90’s, the place was still being run by her son.
Over the past years, I’ve made okonomiyaki at home many times. Being of ethnic Chinese descent with a pronounced taste for the Cantonese flavors of my ancestral motherland, I’ve adapted my version to my cultural tastes.
Pictured below is okonomiyaki made with fried rice that I topped with shredded cabbage, bok choy, and chopped onions. As with the Hiroshima version, I cracked a raw egg on top of the vegetables prior to adding a ladle of batter. I drizzled this particular dish with an umami sauce made with mushroom soy sauce mixed with ketchup and honey. I added mayonnaise which the Japanese began using after WWII, though the Japanese version includes MSG. I garnished it with pork sung (shredded pork jerky that was marinated in soy sauce) and fenugreek sprouts from my herb garden.
There is something intrinsically satisfying about okonomiyaki. Although Japanese crepe recipes don’t often include butter and use water instead of milk, I like the taste of a buttery French style crepe coupled with the savory flavor of cabbage and onions mixed with a rich egg yolk and permeated with the flavor of garlic and ginger from fried rice or Shanghai style noodles. The use of pork sung adds a smoky flavor that blends well with the vinegar tang of the ketchup, the saltiness of the soy sauce, and the sweetness of honey.
One suggestion that I have for novice okonomiyaki makers is to consider using a sauté pan to initially cook this product. A sauté pan will help you shape the crepe and will also constrain the fillings. After pouring crepe batter over the fillings, loosen the bottom crepe and then quickly flip the sauté pan over a greased flat top griddle that has been preheated. Don’t be afraid to use your offset spatula to push any loose fillings back into the okonomiyaki after it’s been flipped.
This is a pretty forgiving product and can be stuffed with all sorts of ingredients. I’ve made this product with sticky rice which I put between two pieces of plastic wrap to roll flat prior to the start of cooking. Adding the sticky rice to the crepe was easily done by peeling away the outer layer of plastic and then flipping the rice onto the crepe prior to removing the last piece of plastic. I then brushed the rice with hoisin sauce prior to adding strips of boneless Chinese roast duck which I topped with green onions and bean sprouts. I’ve also done something similar using thin slices of roasted pork tenderloin instead of duck. Okonomiyaki made with fried rice topped with spicy Kung Pao shrimp has also been a big hit for Super Bowl games.