Monday, March 21, 2016

Food blogging: Okonomiyaki, the best way to eat cabbage that exists

Type: Japanese
Difficulty: easy
Non-Standard Ingredients: 2 from any Asian market
Grade: B

Okonomiyaki means "whatever you like fried up", you can put just about anything into okonomiyaki as an extra, but there are some basics that don't change.  It's essentially a savory batter with a bunch of cabbage and green onion mixed in along with your optional ingredients, and then cooked kind of like a pancake with thin strips of pork belly on the bottom.  You top it with a sauce called, boringly enough, okonomiyaki sauce, most people also add mayo.  Its simple and good, and as it says in the title the best way you'll ever find to eat cabbage.

There's two main types of okonomiyaki, I just described Kansai (or Osaka) style, which is the type I like best and the only variety I'd recommend trying to make at home.  Hiroshima style is a lot more complicated to try to make at home and involves layering lots of stuff together rather than mixing it up from the start.  

Despite living in Japan for a semester and knowing more about Meiji Era Japan (1868-1912) than anyone who didn't actually get a degree in East Asian history should, I really don't care for most Japanese food, though there's very little I actively dislike there's also not much that really makes me excited.

There are some Japanese dishes that are excellent, sushi may well be one of the best food inventions ever, and no one ever has anything bad to say about miso soup.  But to me most Japanese cooking is a bit like the less inspiring variety of American midwestern cooking.  It's generally sort of sweetish and bland and boring.  There are several exceptions, Japanese dishes I absolutely love, but for the most part I'm kind of meh about Japanese cooking.  

Okonomiyaki is one of the exceptions.  It is just plain good, and oddly new.  As nearly as anyone can tell, it didn't exist prior to WWII, and may have been invented due to the post-war shortages of rice.

In Japan you mostly encounter it at fairs or restaurants, but it's dead easy to make at home.  Most of the ingredients can be found at any American grocery store, and the stuff you can't find at most American grocery stores can usually be found in even the smallest and less well stocked Asian grocers.

Mind, as long as you're headed to your local Asian grocery anyway, you might as well get some other stuff while you're there because Asian grocers are filled with many amazing, awesome, and delicious things.

This recipe makes either two large servings or three medium servings.

Ingredients From An Asian Market That You MUST Have:

You cannot make okonomiyaki without these two things:

Dashi stock.  HonDashi is usually what you'll find both in your local Asian market and in Japan, it's a powder that looks a bit like baking yeast, a small jar should cost less than $3.  If you really feel like it you can try to make your own from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes, but I've never thought it was really worth it.  Until you know what dashi should taste like, just use the powder.  Dashi is the root of almost all Japanese cookery.

Okonomiyaki sauce.  The brand you'll most likely find is Otafuku, and it is good stuff.  Restaurants in Japan often have their own house secret sauce, but I'm not an okonomiyaki restaurant and neither are you so just buy some from the store.

Optional Extras from an Asian Market:

This stuff is kind of nice to have but not actually necessary.

Kewpie brand mayonnaise, has a somewhat different flavor from American mayo

Aonori, ground up seaweed, makes a nice topping for the okonomiyaki and some other dishes

Bonito flakes: super thin shavings of smoked dried fish, traditional topping for okonomiyaki and quite tasty

Miso you're there anyway, miso soup is bloody delicious, might as well grab some and have it too!

Pickled, shredded, ginger, there's two kinds: gari which you get with sushi and comes in pale pink thin slices, and beni shoga which is radioactive neon obviously fake red and comes in julienned shreds.  You want beni shoga for this.  

If you really, really, feel like it you can try to find naga-imo, Japanese mountain yam, if you do you omit the potato starch from the recipe and grind up a couple tablespoons of naga-imo into a sort of slimy sticky stuff that adds extra body to the batter.  I've never found naga-imo at a low enough price I thought it was worth it.

Ingredients From Any Grocery Store:

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons potato starch
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
4 cups chopped cabbage
12 or so green onions, fine sliced on the white end and chopped to about 1/2 inch pieces on the green end
6 strips bacon (or uncured pork belly if you want to be more traditional) cut into 1/2 inch or so strips.

How to cook it:

Measure 2/3 cups of water and add about 3/4 tablespoon of dashi powder, that's a bit strong for soup but perfect for okonomiyaki.  Stir until dissolved.  Congrats, you now have dashi stock.

Mix the flour, potato starch, and baking powder in a large bowl.  Crack in the eggs, and add the dashi stock, and mix with a spoon or whisk until well blended and smooth.  No need for a hand mixer or stand mixer.

Chop your cabbage into somewhat smaller than 1/2 inch pieces, you're looking for bite size here, and mix that into your batter.

Chop the white part of the green onions into very thin slices, and the green part into roughly 1/2 inch long pieces.  Mix that into your batter.

Heat a large pan or skillet over medium heat until it's about right for making pancakes.  Add a touch of cooking spray then put 1/2 or 1/3 of your batter/cabbage/green onion glop.  

Smoosh it flat and round until its only about 1/2 inch thick.  Put bacon pieces on top.

Cover with a lid and let cook for three to four minutes, until the bottom is golden. 

Flip, you may need two spatulas for this step.  Now your bacon is on the bottom and cooking away merrily.  Cover and cook for three to four more minutes.

When the bottom is cooked and your bacon all nice and done, remove from a pan and plate.  Start your next one right away then decorate the first.

Top with stripes of okonomiyaki sauce, mayo, and (if you got it) aonori and bonito flakes.



That's a very basic okonomiyaki.  You can add whatever you like to the basic batter and cabbage mix.  In Japan you usually see octopus or shrimp, but also chicken, sometimes beef, more pork, tofu, extra veggies (zucchini shredded thin is nice), okonomiyaki is all about what you want to add so add whatever sounds good.

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