I’ve got a secret to confess: I’ve never really liked okonomiyaki. Every version I’ve tried has been leaden and dense. The mix-ins are usually unidentifiable, buried in an egg and flour gut bomb. I kept ordering it though, if only for the magical combination of Japanese Kewpie mayo, tangy Otafuku Okonomi sauce, and smoky bonito flakes that top them. But that’s all changed now. Thanks to Namiko Hirasawa Chen’s recipe, I am an okonomiyaki believer!
Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake eaten throughout Japan. It’s most often filled with cabbage and seafood, but any combo of vegetables and protein can make their way into one. There are two main varieties originating in the Kansai and Hiroshima regions, differing only in pancake assembly: In Kansai, the mix-ins are incorporated into the batter and it’s cooked more like an American pancake. In Hiroshima, the ingredients are layered, yielding a larger, more dramatic pancake.
The key to Namiko’s recipe are two ingredients that I’ve rarely seen in okonomiyaki, neither in restaurant versions nor in the recipes I’ve read. The first is a Japanese mountain yam called nagaimo. Similar to daikon, nagaimo is very light, crisp, and watery. On a fine Japanese grater, it easily breaks down into a sticky, mucilaginous paste that readily traps air bubbles, giving the pancakes some extra lift. The second ingredient is tenkasu, which are light and crisp fried tempura bits. Together, they brought the lightness my okonomiyaki experiences had been missing.
After whisking the grated yam into my pancake batter, the batter looked instantly leavened, much like a high-hydration bread dough that had proofed overnight. It was the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time. I ran around the house showing everybody the magic of grated nagaimo! I have high hopes for it in future gluten-free baking tests.
Now with the green market in winter mode, I stuck to the the typical shredded cabbage filling and added crisp kohlrabi and sweet carrots. I shaved everything super thin on a mandolin, tossed it all with kosher salt, and let them hang out overnight in the fridge along with the batter. Salting the veggies in advance tenderizes them, so they can quickly cook in the batter, while letting the batter rest overnight allows the starches to hydrate and trap more air for a lighter pancake.
When I was ready to okonomiyaki, I heated my cast iron skillet until it started barely smoking. In a large bowl, I mixed the rested pancake batter with eggs, the shaved veggies, and tenkasu. I generously oiled the skillet before ladeling in my batter and covered the pan. I cooked the pancake over medium heat until the bottom was brown and crisp and the mixture was set enough to flip. Then, I continued cooking the pancake until the other side was brown and crisp, as well, and the center was fully set. Finally, it was time for the best part—smear, drizzle, and shower with Kewpie, okonomiyaki sauce, fresh chives, and bonito flakes.
My friends, what a freakin’ treat! The edges: so crisp, so golden. The interior: custardy and fluff-city. Every mix-in had its time to shine in the light and tender nagaimo batter. I finally see what I’ve been missing and why okonomiyaki is such a street food staple throughout Japan. My new life goals include waking up early, journaling, and always having rested batter in my fridge for on-the-fly pancake action. As I write this, I’m contemplating my next okonomiyaki experience. Maybe one with chewy rice cakes, peppery pecorino, sweet potato, and swiss chard?
How about frozen corn with snipped chives and melty mozzarella?
Or a paella inspired one with floral saffron, briny clams, and sofrito?
I mean, okonomi does translate to “what you like” after all...