Kids and vegetables. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Well, not as much as you’d like them to anyway. My eldest, Lily, is a bit hot and cold on them. Although one of the ways I’ve found some success in getting Lily to eat all of her veggies is by cooking them into one of the ever popular Japanese pancakes, okonomiyaki; although I think she just loves the fact that she gets to drench the whole thing in brown sauce and mayo.
You’ve probably encountered these behemoth-sized pancakes at most food courts, if the Japanese fast food outlet offers more than just sushi. Most of them are terrible and quite rubbery thanks to the time spent sitting under heat lamps, in the display counter.
I’ve been playing around with okonomiyaki recipes for a couple of years now with varying success. I recently nailed the recipe on my preferred okonomiyaki, which I wanted to base on more of your everyday ingredients, as opposed to being stung up to $10 for okonomiyaki flour at an Asian grocery store. More on that later.
The name okonomiyaki is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”. Like many national dishes, okonomiyaki varies in style and its ingredients according to the region in Japan, although the primary ingredient in all variations is cabbage. Our good friend, Wikipedia, gives you more information here and there is also some good information on all things okonomiyaki here… although most of you are probably waiting to read the recipe so you can make this for yourself tonight, farfromfamished style:
2 cups self raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1.5 cups dashi stock
4 cups packed, shredded Chinese cabbage (which equated to half of a somewhat large cabbage)
5-6 spring onions, finely sliced
Half a bunch of chives, cut into 1.5cm batons
2 slices of thinly sliced streaky bacon (for each okonomiyaki)
1/2 a block of silken tofu, cut into cubes
okonomi sauce, to taste
kewpie mayonnaise, to taste
thinly sliced spring onions (optional)
bonito flakes (optional)
seaweed flakes (optional)
Back to okonomiyaki flour for a moment. It’s a fine, white flour that’s seasoned with shrimp, scallop, bonito and mixed with another flour made from the exotic sounding Nagaimo yam (Japanese Mountain Yam), which makes the batter sticky and glutinous. There’s probably some MSG thrown in for good measure too.
For the price (which works out to be around $15/kg), it instantly makes a dish that’s largely made up of very economical ingredients not so cheap, so going back to my vision of wanting to base a recipe on everyday ingredients, I trawled through many recipes to narrow down the best flour to use. Most recipes called for plain flour, but I wanted my okonomiyaki to be light and not stodgy like its food court predecessors, so I opted to use common self raising flour – a much more economical alternative, lightened further with a teaspoon of baking powder, which produced some excellent results.
I still wanted to capture the same fishy flavour you get in the okonomiyaki flour. When I was in Coles recently, I was surprised to see they sold dashi stock powder ($2.98) in the Asian section. Mind you, it was the Coles in Melbourne Central where the range of international products available tend to be more abundant than your average suburban Coles.
The dashi stock powder comes in ten sachets and from what I could work out from the instructions, one sachet makes around two litres of stock. The quantities in my recipe only required one and half cups of liquid, so I added one whole sachet given there was no other seasoning in the batter.
The last of the ingredients for the batter were eggs and quantity varied across many recipes. The majority of the recipes called for around one to one-and-a half eggs per person. I was planning to make enough to sustain two adults and two children, which was somewhere between 3-4 people, depending on how hungry everyone was or wasn’t, so I decided on three eggs. Unfortunately I had to settle for two because that’s all I had left in the fridge.
I added the stock to the flour and whisked until it was all incorporated, then added the eggs. The end result had the thickness of halfway between single cream and double cream, which looked about right.
I left the batter to stand for around 15-20 minutes, whilst I tended to the vegetables, which make up the rest of the ingredients for okonomiyaki (with the exception of your license to pimp up your okonomiyaki, as per its namesake and the accompanying condiments, which I’ll talk about later).
I’ve found it’s best to no go overboard with different vegetables and to make sure that they’re cut or shredded finely enough so they cook through.
My preferred cabbage is the Chinese cabbage or Wombok as it provides both a finer texture from the leaves at one end and some crunch from the base of the leaf at the other end.
The size selection of a Chinese cabbage at Coles was bloody huge or gargantuan on steroids, so I took the former. I’ve seen the Coles greengrocer people at my local store cut things in half for customers upon request, but at Melbourne Central there were no one available and the lady at the deli counter wasn’t too keen. I think she only knew how to operate the meat slicer.
I initially finely sliced a quarter of the cabbage, but settled on a half because there wasn’t that much room in the crisper compartment of the fridge. As for the carrot and zucchini, I pulled out my ridiculously expensive, yet impractical Zyliss mandolin and used the 3.5mm julienne blade, rather than using a grater as I didn’t want the carrot or zucchini to release excess liquid into the batter. It worked a treat.
I added the remaining spring onion and chives and gave the vegetables a quick once over to make sure there was an even distribution of vegetables before adding the batter to the mix.
When it was time to cook the mixture, I poured about a tablespoon of rice bran oil to a heavy based non-stick pan, which was essential in delivering a quality end product. In attempts gone by I’ve struggled with using a Scanpan Saute Pan that lost its non-sticking qualities (virtually indestructible, indeed) and the high sides didn’t help when it came to flipping the okonomiyaki.
So after evening out a 2 cm layer of the mixture, I placed a couple of slices of bacon on top, then placed on a lid and turned down the gas to its lowest setting. You want to make sure the vegetables cook all of the way through and you also want the bottom to form a nice crust without burning. Bear in mind, bacon could be replaced with your favourite meat. On the day I took the pics I used to accompany this recipe, I used char siu pork from a nearby Chinese restaurant. Roasted duck would also work a treat.
After 10 minutes it was time to flip this beast. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with, as did I without making a mess. I cooked the other side in the same slow manner, but without the lid because all I wanted to achieve was browning the underside and getting the bacon nice and crispy.
When it’s cooked, it’s time for garnishes and sauces. The two sauces traditionally served with okonomiyaki are a must and no alternatives to the authentic sauces should be used. The first one is a no-brainer – kewpie mayonnaise. This is the quintessential Japanese mayo and readily available in supermarkets these days (in the Asian section). It is made with egg yolks instead of whole eggs, and the vinegar is a proprietary blend containing apple and malt vinegars, which gives it a distinct flavour. I think it also contains some MSG, so be warned in case that shit makes you crazy.
The other sauce, a brown sauce, comes in different varieties. It’s like a mix of Worcestershire sauce and teriyaki sauce… a little fruity, sweet and spicy. The two main sauces readily available in most Asian Grocery stores are Tonkatsu (Bulldog brand) sauce and Otafuku Okonomi Sauce, which is my favourite as it’s a little less tangy than the Bulldog brand.
The other common garnishes are finely sliced spring onion, bonito flakes and seaweed flakes. Use them if you want, but I’m happy with just the sauces, thank you.
The other ingredient I’ve wanted to try in my okonomiyaki is tenkatsu, which literally translates to tempura refuse; packaged crunchy bits of fried tempura batter. I’m sure it would add some excellent texture. Unfortunately I haven’t found it in any shops and I’m not going to make my own in a hurry.
Serve it cut into wedges like a pizza as it’s good to share, or serve them whole and hide yourself in a corner so no one else can get to you or it.