There was one dish I missed out of my favourite ten Japanese recipes in the Times this week (actually there were loads – what am I thinking of?), largely because – and this is one of my great bugbears about recipes – the actual instructions for making it would have been deemed far too long, involved and complicated.
That's a shame because I reckon this could be the next global fast food trend. It certainly deserves to be, and if anyone wants to put some money up and my name above the door, I'm all for rolling out a nationwide chain of restaurants by Christmas.
Looks horrendous, doesn't it? Like some kind of alien, after Sigourney Weaver has had her way with it. It is Okonomiyaki, variously described as Japanese pizza, omelette or pancake. Actually, it is a kind of omelette-pancake hybrid, invented in Osaka, in which various ingredients – typically cabbage, seafood, pork and kimchi – are added to a flour and yam batter before being cooked on a hot plate. In some restaurants diners cook them themselves on a hot plate built into the table, but in others chefs cook them on giant hot plates and then send them out. It translates, literally, as 'whatever you like.' It's a major date food in Japan, apparently.
Of equal importance in the okonomiverse is the amazing, rich, dark, tangy-meaty-sweet sauce with which they slather the okonomiyaki, before adding a drizzle of Japanese mayonnaise, aonori and some katsuobushi flakes. It is an astonishingly addictive combination. If you visit the seedier parts of downtown Osaka and venture into the underpasses and alleyways you will find poor, lost souls actually injecting this sauce into their veins ('Twice as sweet as sugar, twice as bitter as salt. And if you get hooked, baby, it's nobody else's fault, so don't do it!').
Here’s how you make one:
Ingredients in a bowl: squid, egg, cabbage, kimchi and, somewhere in there, fresh ground yam (yamaimo), salt, flour, dashi and mirin. The secret ingredient is the yam, which keeps the batter moist and springy. It's best to grind it fresh (though apparently it can cause skin irritations – the trick is to soak it in vinegar first), but you can use yam flour. In truth, most Japanese would use a packet mix to make okonomiyaki at home.
Mix it all well, but don't beat all the air out of it you want to keep it light and fluffy, and pour out onto a hot plate. Cook for a few minutes, then flip and cook for a few more minutes.
This being a Japanese dish, there are countless regional variations. Hiroshima okonomiyaki has the ingredients layered with the batter instead of mixed together (that's a Hiroshima version at the top of the post). In Tokyo they have monjayaki, which is a much sloppier, more liquid batter and, frankly, is really annoying and a bit of a mess. In Osaka – indisputably the iconic okonomiyaki, it is all cooked together into a thick, sumptuous, gut-busting disc.
(That's a monjayaki – told you it wasn't pretty).
As I said, the sauce is also very important, as it is in the case of those two other great Osakan fast foods, tako yaki (octopus doughnuts – don't knock 'em until you've tried them) and kushikatsu (deep fried, breaded yakitori). And I'll be returning to the dark arts of Japanese sauce making soon.
Meanwhile, God bless the Internet: there are countless sites dedicated to the worship of okonomiyaki – here's a good one with recipes.
And here is the ultra refined, poshed-up restaurant President Chibo version: