A fresh head of cabbage in my extended CSA share this week caused my mind to go immediately to okonomiyaki. This Asian dish, often referred to as a Japanese pancake or Japanese pizza, is on regular rotation in my kitchen and for good reason. It’s quick, easy, and quite versatile so there’s plenty of room to play with ingredients around the basic recipe.
The name itself explains the dish: Loosely translated, okonomi means “to one’s liking” and yaki means “grill.” You can mix and match ingredients you prefer or have on hand, “to your liking.” All three of my children love it and depending on what you add, this dish can be a healthy and budget-friendly meal.
Okonomiyaki is a popular street food in Japan, but also made in restaurants and home kitchens of course. What exactly is it? Usually a base mixture of cabbage, green onions, and maybe pork added to a batter of eggs and just enough flour to hold it together. It’s fried on a flat surface resulting in a savory, omelet-like pancake with a crisp exterior and soft interior.
Traditionally, it’s also often made with Japanese ingredients such as grated nagaimo (a yam-like starchy vegetable that helps make the pancakes fluffier); katsuobushi (dried fermented bonito flakes that add an umami taste component), or shredded dried green seaweed.
But many of the common or basic ingredients are things we find growing aplenty in Wisconsin: daikon radish, cabbage, eggs, cabbage, pork belly, carrots and zucchini.
In the Kansai style of okonomiyaki, all the ingredients are incorporated into the batter and cooked like making pancakes. Place the batter on a large, flat, heated surface and press down with a spatula. Let one side get nice and brown, then flip it to brown the other side.
The Hiroshima style keeps the filler ingredients separate from the batter, initially. The cooking process begins with just the batter on the hot griddle, then the ingredients are layered on top. More batter tops the okonomiyaki and then finally you flip it to brown the other side. A fried egg tops this style.
In either style, you can make one big pancake, then slice it into pieces for serving (hence, Japanese pizza), or cook smaller, individual sized servings. I prefer the second method as I find them easier to flip, and because my large griddle allows me to cook half a dozen or so all at the same time.
The final component is the condiments. The pancakes are often topped with okonomiyaki sauce (akin to a Japanese ketchup or barbeque sauce) and Japanese mayonnaise (made with apple or rice vinegar). Both can be ordered online but I enjoy making my own versions. Try making a spicy version of mayonnaise for some added heat then countering it with a sweeter Asian style barbecue sauce.
The beautiful thing about these versatile hot cakes is they can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for several days, or frozen for future days. To reheat and maintain their crispiness, place them on a baking sheet in the oven.
Okonomiyaki filling traditionally includes a number of regular ingredients: seafood such as shrimp, calamari, scallops, or octopus; Asian noodles; pickled ginger, daikon, kimchi. You might also like it with sesame seeds, mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, potatoes or other root vegetables.
I had a challenge finding Japanese ingredients in our local Asian markets so this recipe is more like “Japanese-inspired pancakes.” Though this version is void of some traditional Japanese ingredients, it’s full of flavor and makes for a very approachable and low maintenance meal. This recipe was inspired by the blog Smitten Kitchen. I like this version because it keeps things simple and uses ingredients available locally most of the year here in Wisconsin. It’s also a quick meatless option for a busy weeknight.
1 small head cabbage, very thinly sliced
3–4 carrots, very thinly sliced
1 small bunch of kale, de-stemmed, sliced into ribbons
1 onion, thinly sliced
½ cup flour
5 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Green onion for garnish
In a large bowl, combine vegetables and flour. Toss to coat. In a separate bowl, crack eggs and beat lightly. Add to vegetable mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Heat griddle or sauté pan over medium high heat. Spray with pan spray or add oil for frying. For individual cakes, place large heaping spoonfuls on the hot surface. Press each down with a spatula. Cook until desired crispiness is reached (about 3-4 minutes for a good crisp) then flip and brown the other side.
If cooking larger cakes, place about one-quarter of the mixture on the hot surface at a time. Cut these large rounds into slices to serve.
Serve with sliced green onions and condiments (see recipes for sauce and mayonnaise).
Asian Bourbon Barbecue Sauce
2 cloves Garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced
½ cup ketchup
¼ cup bourbon
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp., Worchester
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. dried mustard
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, bring all ingredients to a boil over medium high heat, stirring often. Reduce heat, simmer until sauce is reduced by half.
Homemade Kewpie Mayonnaise
This recipe is adapted from one on the website Food 52. Traditional Kewpie mayonnaise contains MSG, which I avoid in cooking. Instead, dashi is used to capture a similar taste. Dashi, a cornerstone of Japanese cooking, is a simple broth made with kombu (dried sea kelp) and bonito fish flakes, and is available in powder form to make instant broth. You can eliminate that as well, however, the result won’t really resemble the Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise.
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. dashi, homemade or instant
1 tsp. Dijon Mustard
1 egg yolk
¾ cup oil
1 tsp. horseradish
½ tsp. sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small saucepan over high heat, bring vinegar and dashi almost to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Transfer to a small mixing bowl and combine the dashi-vinegar concentrate with mustard and egg yolk. While continuously whisking mixture, slowly drizzle in oil to form an emulsion. Mixture should thicken. Add horseradish and season with salt and pepper.