Okonomiyaki Night!

Twice recently, I made okonomiyaki (or as I called it for about the first hundred times I tried to pronounce it, “oko yummy mommy”). Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake with cabbage and an assortment of seafood, meat, and vegetables; part of the name translates to “whatever you like,” so it’s a bit of a free-for-all, not unlike how one might concoct an omelet or a pizza from a log list of suggested filling and toppings.

There are a few hilariously instructive videos online for cooking okonomiyaki, particularly Cooking with Dog.

Here are two basic recipes for okonomiyaki, one from About.com, which has an ingredients list that doesn't call for anything you can't find in a typical grocery store, and another with more traditionally Japanese ingredients. Remember, you can substitute any fillings that you like.

I also read some blog posts to get advice, but having done a little trial-and-error cooking now myself, I have a few thoughts to add:

1. Cooking the okonomiyaki takes much longer than one might expect. On my most recent attempt, both pancakes were still wet in the middle, and they cooked for 20 minutes each (plus one of them sat in a warm oven while I cooked the other, and even then it was still wet). Boyfriend and I were able to eat the exterior part with no problem, and we merrily picked through the rest, snagging bite-sized bits of perfectly-cooked seafood from the mush.

2. A related point is that the batter needs to be a lot drier than one might imagine. The only comparison I have to this is to think about working with chocolate chip cookie dough. When the dough is mixed but the chocolate has not yet been added, the dough seems almost too stiff and dry – but mixing in the chips somehow loosens it up a bit. When the okonomiyaki batter is made, it should also be a little too dry; then when you add the chopped cabbage, it will relax. Additionally, when you add seafood, the fish will release a good amount of water, thereby making your batter even wetter. Starting with a batter that’s on the dry side will help accommodate these changes.

3. Fresh squid tubes are heaven-sent. Both times I made okonomiyaki, I only added seafood and green onion or shallot. Although I never have cooked with fresh calamari before, I decided to try adding it to the pancakes because I knew that, like scallops and shrimp, they only need a few minutes to cook. We added the seafood after the first side of the pancake had been browned, just before flipping it. That way, the seafood only cooked half as long as the rest of the okonomiyaki. In my neighborhood, which is very Greek, the cleaned baby squids only cost about $3 or $4 per pound. They are so delicious and so easy to rinse, cut, and cook that I would not ever make okonomiyaki at home without them. And their chewy texture really makes the dish more fun to eat.

4. Another way to ensure the okonomiyaki comes out great is to invite your little sister over to help make it, especially if she is a fan of Japanese food and knows how the final dish should look and taste. (Thanks, H!)

5. The flakes most people add to the top flutter from the heat of the pancake, giving the illusion of little crawling bugs. If, like me, this creeps you out, skip the flakes (although I have to admit, it's tastier with them on).