Okonomiyaki: Japanese Pizza, Pancake, or Fritter?
A food market favorite In Japan and around the world, nobody really questions what okonomiyaki is—until they have to describe it to someone else. Delicious, satisfying, and cheap, okonomiyaki is a simple and cost-effective meal. No wonder it’s been the savior of international students across Japan when funds are tight.
With just a few simple ingredients—or at many simple food stalls dotted around Japan—you’ve got a fantastic, frugal meal that can be dressed up hundreds of ways.
So what is okonomiyaki, and why is it one of Japan’s most beloved foodie exports?
What is Okonomiyaki: The Basics
Okonomiyaki is a delightfully fluffy savory, pan-fried dish. At its most basic, it is made up of a batter and cabbage.
From there, chefs and food enthusiasts customize okonomiyaki in any number of ways. Meats, seafood—especially prawns—wasabi, cheese, spring onion, and vegetables can be added.
The sentiment behind okonomiyaki is in its name, actually. Okonomi means ‘how you like’ and yaki means ‘fried’, and it really can be created exactly how you like it.
Okonomiyaki is associated primarily with the Osaka and Hiroshima regions, but it is widely available all over Japan, and the world. Food stalls and markets in the US, UK, Europe, and the Pacific all offer some version of this Japanese delicacy.
Many fans of this compact meal call it a pancake. That’s fair. It is made of a batter cooked on a griddle or pan, like a pancake. But when you can fill it with octopus, prawns, shrimp, pork, and cabbage, pancake seems a little misleading.
So, what about fritter? Again, it has batter like a fritter, but when it gets layered with savory ingredients as in the classic Hiroshima style, it’s really not much of a fritter at all.
Maybe the most accurate comparison is that okonomiyaki is Japanese pizza. Packed or layered with delicious savory ingredients, the only difference is that it’s fried, not baked. But given the propensity for Chicago-style deep dish pizza pie, it’s still not that much of a stretch.
Whatever Western comparisons you want to draw, one thing is indisputable: okonomiyaki is a food trend that only grows in popularity over time.
What is Okonomiyaki: The History
A rudimentary version of okonomiyaki was popular during World War II, when Japan experienced a major shortage of rice. The version of the pan-fried dish comprised mainly of wheat and cabbage. It was filling, inexpensive, and an excellent way to provide nutrition to children in times of shortage.
What is Okonomiyaki: The Present
Okonomiyaki is eaten at specialist restaurants around Japan, where it is traditionally served off an iron griddle. For readers familiar with teppanyaki—which stems from the words teppan (meaning iron griddle) and yaki (meaning fried)—this is the traditional method of cooking okonomiyaki.
If you order okonomiyaki in Osaka, you’ll notice a few differences from the same dish in Hiroshima. In Hiroshima, okonomiyaki is served on noodles—in Osaka, it’s served on its own. In Hiroshima, the dish is made up of layers of ingredients—in Osaka, the ingredients are combined in the batter. However you prefer it just comes down to personal (and regional) preferences.
Sometimes, okonomiyaki is served to customers as ingredients—which they then mix and cook for themselves. This can be a little overwhelming for first-timers, but there are plenty of places to learn the basics of creating your own okonomiyaki—if you want to practice in the privacy of your own home.
The step by step instructions for recreating this popular dish are available after the jump.
What is Okonomiyaki: The Origin Story
Kansai okonomiyaki—the one originating in Osaka—is the most world-renowned version of the dish. The batter is made of wheat flour, grated nagaimo yam, dashi, eggs, and shredded cabbage.
Diners can add any of their favorite ingredients. Then the batter is pan-fried on both sides, topped with a traditional okonomiyaki/otafuku sauce (similar to Worcesteshire sauce), nori flakes, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, and pickled ginger.
In Hiroshima, each ingredient is added to the pan or griddle one at a time. First, batter is poured onto the hot plate. Cabbage and other fillings are added next. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki usually uses more cabbage than the Kansai variety, but this cooks down quickly. As it cooks, the dish is basted with okonomiyaki/otafuku sauce until it finishes cooking. The toppings are the same as with the Kansai version.
What is Okonomiyaki: Let’s Get Cooking Kansai!
- Gather all your ingredients. If you’re at a traditional teppanyaki okonomiyaki restaurant, they’ll bring the ingredients to you.
- Mix the ingredients together in a bowl.
- Pour a small amount of oil onto the teppan and wait for it to heat.
- Pour the batter mixture onto the teppan and spread it around slightly with the spatulas—you want a round, slightly thick shape.
- Once one side is golden and small bubbles are showing in the batter, flip it.
- Cook on the second side until cooked through and brush with okonomiyaki sauce.
- Zigzag some Japanese mayo onto the finished dish.
- Sprinkle flaked nori all over.
- Sprinkle Bonito flakes all over.
- Enjoy it while it’s hot!
What is Okonomiyaki: Fun Facts
- Okonomi-mura was one of Japan’s top ranked theme park destinations in 2004. It’s a food theme park dedicated to okonomiyaki.
- Tsukishima district in Tokyo does some of the country’s best okonomiyaki. It also serves Monjayaki—a liquid version of okonomiyaki with many of the same ingredients.
- The main street of Tsukishima district is named ‘Monja Street’ after the liquid version of this classic dish.
- Some variations of okonomiyaki include an oyster variety—kakioko—or a chicken and tallow style—kashiminyaki—and even a ground meat style—fuchuyaki.
- One of the oldest traditional okonomiyaki restaurants is Sometaro, in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. This restaurant has been serving the beloved dish since 1937—from their original recipe.
- Okaru, in Namba, has been open for over 60 years and is a must visit for okonomiyaki fans. As part of the experience, the chef draws characters—like Snoopy and Mickey Mouse—on your okonomiyaki with mayo.