Bearing more similarities to rösti or bubble and squeak than pizza, as it is often compared, okonomiyaki is to my mind one of the best ways to eat cabbage and a great example of wartime necessity creating fantastic food. During World War II, when rice supplies were at their lowest, inexpensive wheat flour was made into a thick batter, mixed with shredded cabbage and fried as filling, savoury pancakes. Seventy years and numerous adaptations to the original recipe later and we now have one of Japan’s most popular dishes. Nagaimo (a type of yam from a climbing vine) is often added to the batter nowadays to enhance the consistency with its unique sticky, foamy texture. If you can’t find nagaimo in an oriental supermarket, beating some air into the two egg whites in the recipe will help to make the okonomiyaki fluffier and closer to the real thing.
The word okonomi translates as ‘what you like’ and yaki to ‘grilled’, and as the name suggests, you can add whatever toppings you like to this dish, our favourite combination being prawns and smoked bacon. Whatever extra ingredients you choose, just make sure to top the pancake with aonori seaweed, dried bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and the punchy, fruity brown sauce known as sōsu or okonomi sauce.
Okonomi sauce ingredients.
- 100ml tomato ketchup
- 40ml Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sanshō (or white pepper)
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon karashi (or smooth, hot mustard)
- 1 teaspoon arrowroot
- Mix all the ingredients except the arrowroot together in a small saucepan and slowly bring the mixture to a simmer. Slake the arrowroot in about a tablespoon of cool water, then add it to the hot sauce. Stir the sauce constantly until it thickens which should take about a minute.
- Take the pan off the heat and transfer the sauce to a bowl or bottle. Once cooled the okonomi sauce will store in the fridge for about a month, and is enough to coat three to four okonomiyaki pancakes.
- 250g white cabbage
- 90g plain flour
- 10g cornflour
- 125g nagaimo
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon dashi powder
- 6 slices smoked streaky bacon
- 4 spring onions
- 10 large prawns
- 2 heaped tablespoons pickled ginger
- a handful of katsuobushi
- 2 tablespoons aonori flakes
- Japanese mayonnaise
- okonomi sauce (either store bought or using the above recipe)
- Peel the nagaimo, then grate it very finely until you have a gluey paste, transfer this to a large mixing bowl. Add the two eggs, soy sauce and dashi powder to the grated nagaimo and mix well. Sift the flour and cornflour into the egg mixture and beat to make your batter, set this aside for an hour so the gluten in the flour can relax.
- Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, shred the cabbage as thinly as you can, finely slice the spring onions, julienne the pickled ginger then add all three to the batter and stir thoroughly until the vegetables are evenly coated.
- Place a large frying pan on a medium heat and allow to warm up. While the pan is heating give your okonomiyaki mixture a vigorous beat with a wooden spoon to fluff up the nagaimo and lighten the texture. Pour half of the mixture into your frying pan, then use a spatula to form the mass into a neat circle, smoothing down the top as you go.
- Press 5 of the prawns into your pancake, then arrange 3 bacon slices over the top of them. Let the okonomiyaki cook for around four to five minutes on the first side until it is a deep golden brown colour, then carefully flip it over, neatening up the sides with your spatula as you go. Cover your frying pan with a lid- this collects the steam and helps keep your okonomiyaki fluffy- and fry for another five minutes on the second side.
- After your pancake has had five minutes under the lid, it should be fully cooked and brown all over. Remove your pan from the heat, slide the okonomiyaki onto a plate and keep warm in the oven whilst you repeat steps three to five with the remaining batter and toppings.
- When both okonomiyaki are cooked, top them first with a coating of the sōsu, then a drizzle of the mayonnaise, and finally with a sprinkle of aonori and katsuobushi.
Serves 2 people.