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Okonomiyaki – The Cake of Many Likes

To put it simply, okonomiyaki is a savory pancake of happiness. It’s very name, okonomiyaki, means “whatever you like” (okonomi) and “cook” (yaki). It is also easy to make and packed with umami, the savory tastiness that’s bound to make the most hardened eaters crack a smile. Just between you and me, it’s a great way to clear out the fridge.

Click here for recipe:

There are three components to this pancake: The batter, filling and topping.

The batter comprises all-purpose flour and, traditionally, grated nagaimo, a type of Japanese yam. When grated, the yam is turns into slimy goo, not exactly a very convenient procedure. For that reason, my recipe uses potato starch to approximate the grated nagaimo. You could also buy prepared okonomiyaki flour from the specialty market for added convenience.

Dashi is a Japanese stock made with ingredients from the sea: konbu (sea kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito/tuna flakes). The steeped liquid is packed with umami and essential to okonomiyaki. We’re using dashi in the batter instead of water. For convenience, you can purchase instant dashi granules (picture below) and just add water.

The filling is where the fun is. Tradition calls for chopped cabbage, tenkasu (tempura scraps to add lightness and texture) and beni shoga (pickled red ginger). If you don’t have tenkasu, you could substitute with panko bread crumbs.

Beni shoga is a must in my book but if you’d rather leave it out, that’s okay too. The ginger is pickled in umezu, the salty and sour pickling liquid used in umeboshi (plum) pickling. It’s very different from gari, the pickled ginger used to accompany sushi and sashimi. Gari looks pink and tastes sweeter compared to beni shoga.

Anything and everything else is fair game! I’ve chosen to use fresh shitake mushroom in my recipe but, really, you could throw in sliced pork belly, shrimp, cheese and just about anything else you like. That’s what this pancake is about — all your favorite things.

Once cooked, you can top the pancake with all kinds of fun things. Okonomiyaki sauce is a must! You could approximate it with a blend of tomato ketchup, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and molasses, but in this case, I’d recommend just buying it off-the-shelf.

The next must-have topping is Kewpie mayonnaise. This Japanese mayonnaise has become a bit of a cult-favorite among chefs for good reason: It’s thicker, creamier and tastier than its American counterpart. Why you ask? It uses egg yolk — hence, the custardy quality — and it contains MSG. Yes, MSG, that ingredient that makes everything taste better!

I’ve added sliced green onions for the aromatics and katsuobushi for an extra kick of umami to the toppings. Something else that’s fun to watch when you add the very thin shavings of katsuobushi — the flakes appear to be dancing! (Video below.) Not to worry, there’s nothing alive on the plate. The super light, tissue-like flakes are simply moving to the heat from the okonomiyaki. If the katsuobushi is too “fishy” for you, feel free to omit it and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds instead. Or you could even top with crispy fried shallots if you like. Remember, this dish is all about what you like.

The real finishing touch is to enjoy okonomiyaki with people you love. It’s bound to trigger uncontrolled happiness all around.

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