As you like it, and you will

I was an adventurous kid, but that didn’t make it easier for me to eat my first cabbage pancake. I encountered the overstuffed okonomi-yaki — a griddle-fried savory pancake — one Saturday afternoon at the temple-cum-community center in Northern California, where I took Japanese-language classes.

Some of the first-generation moms gathered that afternoon to make okonomi-yaki for the students. Some of the kids, who had spent summers in Japan or whose mothers still made Japanese food at home, couldn’t wait to eat the flatcakes filled with hot vegetable, seafood and pork. For the rest of us, it was to be a new experience.

I didn’t dislike okonomi-yaki after that initial encounter, but I was far from converted. It took some time over here in the homeland — and exposure to really good okonomi-yaki — before I could appreciate it.

We can only make an informed guess on the origin of the modern okonomi-yaki. In the Edo Period, little flatcakes made of flour and water and called senbin were brought over from China by wealthy travelers, most likely as omiyage gifts. These gained popularity, and a Japanese version soon appeared. Called funo-yaki, these little cakes were made of wheat gluten (fu) or flour mixed with water or sake and served with a sansho, or black pepper-flavored, miso topping.

The first mention of funo-yaki is in the 1509 Rikyu Hyakkai Ki (Journal of 100 Meetings), written by tea-ceremony pioneer Sen no Rikyu. He must have been a big fan of the sweet pancake — of the 88 references to dessert, 68 are of funo-yaki.

By the Meiji Era, a funo-yaki variation called monja-yaki appeared in confectionaries in and around Tokyo. Monja-yaki were possibly so called because the batter was poured onto the griddle in the shape of a pictograph character before the holes were filled in to make a round cake. Monja-yaki can still be found in most parts of Japan, although no longer as a dessert. The savory monja-yaki — a thin cake made with a loose batter of flour and dashi and filled with vegetables and meats — is thought of as the downtown Tokyo shitamachi grandfather to the modern okonomi-yaki.

By the end of the Meiji Era, another version, rolled up on a stick, made its way around the country, from festival to festival, under the name dondon-yaki. Soon, every village candy store was serving hot-griddled savory pancakes based on dondon and monja. Because the pancake was foreign to rural folks, they called these treats issen-yoshoku — literally “one-penny Western meal.”

Popular all over the country, these different griddled pancake yaki were especially embraced by the people of western Japan. By the Showa Era, the Osaka version, okonomi-yaki, became the standard. With a thick batter often made with grated yama-imo (Japanese yam), this version is stuffed with cabbage, konnyaku, pork and seafood, and topped with the same intense sauce as tako-yaki and tonkatsu.

Hiroshima’s version of the dish has all of the same ingredients plus noodles — yaki-soba or udon. In Hiroshima, however, the stuffing is not mixed with the batter, but rather the batter is poured on the griddle and then the other ingredients — the gu — are then placed on top.

There are now dozens of variations on the okonomi-yaki theme, and the terminology can get quite confusing. First, as you can see, depending on where you are, simply ordering “okonomi-yaki” might yield different results. The safe bet is, however, if you are not in Hiroshima, you will get an Osaka-style pancake.

Second, know your terminology when ordering at a restaurant. Plain okonomi-yaki with shrimp (ebi) as the main ingredient should be ordered as ebi-ten. The same goes for beef (gyu-ten), pork (buta-ten), squid (ika-ten) and vegetable (yasai-ten). Add a fried egg and the shrimp version becomes ebi-tama-yaki, the beef gyu-tama-yaki, etc. Regular okonomi-yaki with a fried egg is called modan-yaki (modern yaki), and one with everything on it is called mikkusu-yaki (mixed yaki).

You can put anything and everything you want in okonomi-yaki. You see, “okonomi” means just that: “as you like it.” At home, cooks and gourmets alike have their own favorite versions. Anything put inside the pancake batter is called gu in Japanese. Common okonomi-yaki gu include pork, shrimp, beef, clams, scallops, squid, oysters, natto (fermented beans), octopus, pork, pickled ginger and, always, lots of cabbage.

In the Kansai region, I have even heard it said that when you cook an okonomi-yaki you are not cooking batter, you are cooking cabbage, and the batter just happens to be there holding the cabbage together. My favorite okonomi-yaki, and the recipe that follows, is a simple pancake made with a yam-heavy batter and stuffed with just pork and cabbage. The batter stays the same no matter what you add, so feel free to go wild.

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Ton kabetsu no okonomi-yaki

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 or 3 dashi tablespoons
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon usukuchi shoyu
2 cups cabbage, roughly chopped
50 grams pork, raw, sliced paper-thin
1 medium-size yama-imo
1 whole egg
okonomi-yaki sauce (I like Bulldog)
aonori (finely ground nori seaweed)

1) Peel the skin of the yama-imo and grate on an oroshigane or on the rough side of a box-grater. Some people have adverse skin reactions to grated yama-imo, so make sure you wash your hands afterward.

2) Next, in a medium-size bowl, mix the flour and egg. Add the grated yama-imo and the salt and shoyu. Incorporate well. Add several tablespoons of dashi to thin the batter.

3) Combine the batter with the chopped cabbage and sliced pork. Set aside while the griddle or cast-iron skillet heats up.

4) On a hot, oiled griddle surface, pour the batter, keeping the thickness of the pancake consistently at 3-4 cm.

5) Let the pancake cook on medium heat until one side is golden-brown. Carefully flip the okonomi-yaki, and continue to cook at medium heat until the other side is done. Check the center for doneness. The pork should be cooked, but the batter should still be creamy.

6) Remove the finished okonomi to a plate, and top with sauce and mayonnaise as desired. Sprinkle with aonori and katsuobushi just before serving.

Serves four to six as an appetizer or one as a main course.

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