Lent Food: Okonomiyaki

If you adjust the ingredients or preparation, even people following the no-milk, no-eggs version of the Lenten fast can use okonomiyaki as a Lenten food. If you can use eggs, it’s even easier!

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese way of having pancakes for dinner. The basics of it are super-simple. Even doing it more elaborately just means dumping in a few more ingredients. Okonomiyaki means “whatever you (honorably) like” (o + konomi) plus “cooked on a grill/griddle/with dry heat” (yaki). So you can use whatever ingredients are laying around. When you’re not abstaining, obviously this can involve meat, since it’s a savory pancake, but a lot of times it’s just vegetables.

How do you make it?

The basic okonomiyaki mix is a batter of wheat flour and water. Two parts flour to one part water is pretty standard, but people adjust this as they like, too. Some people include milk; some people use dashi (fish stock) instead of water.

But yeah, if you’re making it for two adult people, 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water will be plenty. With more people, make more batter! All-purpose flour is traditional, although the most frou-frou okonomiyaki restaurants use cake flour. (You can also buy okonomiyaki mix in some Japanese grocery stores, and then you can ignore the next paragraph. Using regular American pancake mix would probably also take care of stickiness, but I’ve never tried it.)

Next, you contemplate what to use to hold it together. One or two eggs is usual, but real traditionalists use a gooey starchy vegetable called yamaimo (mountain yam) or powdered yamaimo, instead of eggs. This makes it a little “bouncy”. Westerners can also just use grated potato, or some kind of starch, like corn or potato starch, or even rice flour.

Then you have your ingredients. The usual main ingredient is chopped up cabbage. You chop or grate half a head of some slaw-suitable cabbage but you don’t use any dressing on it. (And maybe you chop it up into smaller pieces after grating it. The finer, the better it cooks.) Any vegetables around the house that you think will work are fair game. Canned, fresh, leftovers in your fridge… whatever. You can include both raw and pre-cooked ingredients in your pancakes. Canned corn is pretty typical for Japanese, although if you do that it will end up tasting like a Japanese version of Kentucky spoon bread. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I have also used sauerkraut instead of grated cabbage. The Japanese often dump cooked noodles (like yakisoba) into the batter, or they put fried eggs on top. It all works.

Get your ingredients ready, and then fold them into your pancake batter, or pour the pancake batter into the ingredient bowl. It works either way.

The texture you want is for the batter to be COATING your ingredients, but not covering them up. You want your mass of ingredients visible. If you have too much batter, the pancakes will take forever to cook; and the insides won’t be cooked at all before the outside starts burning.

Thoroughly grease your square griddle, frying pan, etc. Use olive oil, because you are going to turn the heat up pretty high for pancakes, and butter tends to burn, so when you have to cook these things a little longer than standard pancakes, you’ll even have to watch the olive oil!

Let your griddle heat up to pancake temperature, or at least to medium heat. (Different recipes give different temps, depending on how much stuff you’re cooking. A relatively thin pancake can be cooked faster at higher temps, but a relatively thick one needs time and hence lower heat. Adjust your heat to suit.)

Pour a good helping of your okonomiyaki batter. Wait until one side is cooked enough to flip, then flip the pancake. Cook the other side, then serve.

(The Japanese like okonomiyaki to be just about plate-sized, or a little smaller. You can make them whatever size you like. Smaller pancakes are easier to flip, but if people have to wait fourteen to twenty minutes for a really thick pancake, you’d better have enough for everyone to eat at once. You can also make them into cute shapes, just like pancakes.)

What do you put on an okonomiyaki pancake?

The Japanese like okonomi sauce (a sort of mixture of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and honey) and mayonnaise (Japanese “Kewpie”-brand mayonnaise is basically Southern US-style mayonnaise). Since Japanese mayo comes in a squeeze bottle, they often use it to draw designs on their food. Ketchup by itself is pretty good, though. The Japanese also like using that red sushi ginger; and they usually use bonito flakes, since the heat of the pancake makes them “dance” and they like the salt fish thing. But of course, you don’t have to use sauce or toppings at all. Heck, you could put butter on ’em if you wanted. It’s your okonomiyaki; do “whatever you like.”

Leftover okonomiyaki freezes well, so don’t let any go to waste!

I like okonomiyaki! Try it as a Lenten recipe, and you’ll like it too!

Pictures of okonomiyaki ingredients and sauces, for us foreigners, as well as a simple recipe for okonomi sauce. Here’s their recipes for Osaka-style okonomiyaki (with pictures and substitution amounts) and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (sometimes called “Japanese pizza”).

Osaka-Style Okonomiyaki explains the whole yamaimo thing, with pictures. This lady steams her pancakes as she is griddling them on medium-low, which probably makes them moister. (But it obviously takes a bit longer.)

Easy Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, from another Japanese grocery over the Internet. This recipe is on medium heat, so again it takes a while.

Tess’s Japanese Kitchen explains how much potato starch to use, if you’re using it as your binder.

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