This Japanese vegetable fritter’s name literally translates as “cooked as you like it”, which is perhaps the most important thing you should know about okonomiyaki. Though sold in restaurants, stalls and convenience stores, it’s also easy to make at home: chef Ivan Orkin dubs it “a clean-out-the-fridge-franken-pancake”, which, “as you might guess”, is “usually something you scarf down during a night of drinking”. Quick, simple and gratifyingly substantial, as well as infinitely adaptable, it also happens to be ideal for those times when you think you have nothing much to eat; I can confirm from experience that even badly made okonomiyaki tastes good. But how do you make a great one?
While the filling may be a moveable feast, it’s the batter that holds everything together, both literally and metaphorically. Okonomiyaki is often described as a “Japanese pizza”, an analogy that’s puzzling for a number of reasons (Japanese pizza already exists, for a start), and principally because the two, it seems to me, have very little in common. Likening it to a frittata, or indeed a pancake, makes more sense, though okonomiyaki tends to have less in the way of mortar (in the form of eggs or batter) than either – it’s a loose collection of ingredients bound by the barest amount of glue. Shinobu, who blogs under the name Little Japan Mama, professes herself horrified by the amount of flour in many western recipes, writing that “the essence of okonomiyaki is dashi [Japanese katsuo fish stock], and then cabbage, eggs and only just enough flour to hold it together”. So don’t be alarmed if there doesn’t seem to be enough of the stuff in the recipe below; there is, if perhaps not quite as much as you might be expecting.
At its simplest, okonomiyaki batter is just flour, eggs and water, though dashi, an intensely savoury, seaweed-based stock often replaces the last. J Kenji López-Alt explains in Serious Eats that “the ratio of liquid to flour, along with the mixing method, will determine the final texture of the okonomiyaki”. Lots of flour gives a fluffy, dry, starchy result more like a supermarket onion bhaji, while more eggs will make it richer, and also denser. Personally, I prefer the velvety, almost custardy texture of the more liquid batters, such as Moto Priestman’s included in Miss South’s collection of Recipes from Brixton Village (Priestman runs Okan, a small group of Osakan restaurants), and Luiz Hara’s, from his book The Japanese Larder, both of which contain significantly more liquid than flour. I love the richness of Hara’s more egg-heavy version, but prefer the more minimal level of batter in Priestman’s, so the recipe below sits somewhere in between the two.
Adam Liaw uses plain flour cut with potato or cornflour in his batter, which, thanks to the lower protein content, delivers a softer, almost melting texture, though rest assured that you can make excellent okonomiyaki without it (Nancy Singleton Hachisu calls for udon or pastry flour in her book Japan: the Cookbook, presumably for the same reason). Hara and Orkin add baking powder to their batters, but as fluffiness is not my aim, I’m going to leave it out, and both work the mixture as little as possible. López-Alt reckons vigorous mixing is the secret to “getting the best texture out of your okonomiyaki … as you whip it, the batter will incorporate air bubbles, turning light and frothy and making for a finished pancake that is creamy but not dense”, but I don’t want to develop the gluten any more than necessary; this isn’t a loaf of bread.
Leaving the batter to sit before use, so the starch grains have a chance to absorb the liquid and the proteins to relax, is recommended for perfection, but if you don’t have time, don’t worry, it will still be delicious.
A pinch of sugar is often added to okonomoyaki batter (light brown, in the case of Hara and Orkin), which, like the dashi stock commonly used instead of plain water, is not vital for success, but will give the pancake a more interesting flavour. The appeal of the Japanese mountain yam, yamaimo, meanwhile, is purely textural; it has an extraordinary, mucilaginous consistency that gives the batter a lovely, custardy plumpness that’s hard to describe but all too easy to eat. López-Alt, Priestman and Hara are all fans, too. I found it easily in a Chinese supermarket, but I haven’t seen the fresh stuff online, so if you can’t track it down, take comfort from the fact that it’s not entirely traditional anyway. (South informs me that Priestman tips a floury potato, “boiled whole for exactly seven minutes and then grated, to replace the yam if you can’t get it”. I try this, and it does make for a denser, starchier batter, but without the slight elasticity of the yam, so, though not a bad addition, it’s not an exact substitute.)
Cabbage is, in theory, non-negotiable, though you could, of course, leave it out in the privacy of your own home, as long as you replace it with something with a similar texture, but its crunchy sweetness makes this dish for me, so I can’t, hand on heart, endorse doing so. A standard green cabbage,or a pointed, hispi or sweetheart version, as it’s variously known, is my preference, though you could use the puzzlingly more widely available bland white variety if that’s what’s available. (If you have the choice, I suspect the more flavourful red sort would be better.)
Spring onions, or negi (Japanese long onions), are also standard and, to show the okonomiyaki’s versatility in the clearing-out-the-veg-drawer department, Tim Anderson includes bean sprouts and sweetcorn in his book Tokyo Stories, while Hara grates in a carrot and adds some chopped kimchi as well. The range of tastes and textures certainly add interest, but the cabbage should remain the star.
You can easily keep this vegetarian – and, I imagine, make it vegan, especially if you use the mountain yam, which has a useful binding quality – by swerving the most common toppings of thinly sliced pork or seafood, but if you do eat meat and fish, then I think pork belly is the most satisfying option. Streaky bacon, suggested as a substitute by Anderson, will do, but it lacks the juicy sweetness of uncured pork and tends to dry out in the pan. If you go to a butcher, they’ll do the slicing for you (ask them to remove the skin, too).
Singleton Hachisu fries a pork chop, then cuts it into strips to fold into the batter itself, which is nice, but not as nice as fried pork belly. She also stirs in some small dried shrimp, while López-Alt adds katsuobushi, or smoked and fermented tuna flakes, to the pancake itself. Both are good choices for seafood lovers, or you could, as Anderson does, add some seared squid to the pork belly … or octopus, or beef, or cheese, or tofu. You get the idea. Topping it with a fried egg, as Anderson also recommends, is rarely a bad idea, either.
López-Alt adds beni shoga (pickled ginger) to his pancake batter, but it has such a strong, zesty flavour that I’m going to save it for the top – for me, the contrast between the slightly bland, starchy pancake and the sledgehammer of flavour on top is one of the chief pleasures of okonomiyaki.
As Singleton Hachisu explains, there are “myriad regional variations” of the dish, including Anderson’s Hiroshima-style version, which involves plonking the cabbage on top of the pancake, then sticking both on top of some fried yakisoba egg noodles mixed with okonomi sauce. It is ridiculously good, and I can imagine the kind of thing that would go very well with a cold Japanese lager. I’ve stuck with the simpler Osaka style below, but if you, like me, never say no to a noodle, it might be worth heading 200 miles east for your dinner. (Fellow carb fans should note that Liaw adds tenkasu, or crunchy tempura pieces, to his dish.)
I try frying this on a heavy, cast-iron griddle, but find it much easier to turn over in a lightweight, nonstick pan, which, because it doesn’t get quite so hot, also makes it less likely that you’ll burn the base – covering the pan to help the cabbage cook through will also help with this, though be careful not to compress the mixture in the process. López-Alt’s idea of starting with the pork on the bottom, so it’s weighed down by the batter, is also far more straightforward than adding it to the top of the pancake and then attempting to flip it.
Again, do as you like – what seems to be more important is to do so generously. Basically, if you can see the top of the okonomiyaki, you’re doing it wrong.
Prep 15 min
Rest 30 min (optional)
Cook 15 min
Makes 1, to serves 1-2, depending on hunger
For the batter
40g plain flour
10g cornflour, or potato starch (or 50g plain flour)
¼ tsp fine salt
¼ tsp sugar (I use light brown)
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk, beaten
4 tbsp strong dashi stock, or water
25g yamaimo (AKA Japanese mountain yam; optional)
For the topping
175g green cabbage, finely shredded
2 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced, white and green parts separated
4 thin slices pork belly (optional)
4 tbsp okonomi sauce, or 2 tbsp ketchup mixed with 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce, to serve
Japanese mayonnaise, to serve
Beni shoga (red pickled ginger), to serve (optional)
Aonori (kelp powder), to serve (optional)
Katsuobushi (bonito flakes), to serve (optional)
Whisk the flours, salt and sugar in a smallish bowl, then add the eggs and stock.
Peel the yam, if using (use gloves, because it can irritate skin), then finely grate into the bowl. Stir everything to make a thickish batter, cover and, if possible, leave somewhere cool for at least 30 minutes.
When you’re ready to cook, put the cabbage and white parts of the spring onion into a large bowl, pour over three-quarters of the batter and mix just until the vegetables are well coated (chopsticks work well for this).
Line a smallish, ideally light and nonstick 20cm or so frying pan with the slices of pork (or other toppings, though if you’re using something less fatty, heat a tablespoon of neutral oil in the pan first).
Pour on the cabbage mixture, tilt the pan so it covers the pork, then pour the remaining quarter of the batter on top. Put the pan on a medium-low heat, cover and cook for about eight minutes, shaking the pan occasionally to ensure the mix doesn’t stick.
Pour off any excess fat, carefully flip the pancake (I use a plate), cover again and cook for about another five minutes, until set but still a bit squidgy in the middle.
Turn out on to a serving plate, cut into quarters and push these back together again. Serve topped with generous amounts of okonomi sauce and mayonnaise, followed by ginger, kelp powder, spring onion greens and, finally, a handful of bonito flakes, if using.
Okonomiyaki – is it the perfect comfort food? What’s your favourite version (runny Tokyo monjayaki is on my to-try list), and which toppings do you like to ladle on?