Monday, January 13, 2014

Memories of Japan: Okonomiyaki

Today is Monday, January 13, 2014. 

Since I spent the first half of my decade in Japan in the Osaka area, I had plenty of chances to eat okonomiyaki, and I came to love this dish.  I hear they do have okonomiyaki in the Tokyo area, but I never saw any, and I really kind of missed it.  But when I had a chance to visit Osaka on business and walked directly to my favorite little okonomiyaki shop in the center of the city, it was gone!  A little parking lot had taken its place, and I was really bummed.  I had some in another place before leaving Osaka, but it wasn't the same.

Okonomiyaki  is a kind of savory pancake with the batter made of flour and grated yam, eggs, plus water or dashi (water that has had dried bonito (fish) shavings sitting in it for a while).  It always has lots of chopped or shredded cabbage and green onion, plus whatever kind of meat you want: thinly sliced pork or beef, octopus, squid, shrimp, or just chopped veggies.  It is cooked on a large griddle often right in front of the customer, and served up directly from the griddle.  The name says it all: okonomi means "as you like it" or "whatever you like" and yaki means "grilled."   Toppings include otafuku sauce (or okonomiyaki sauce), which is like Worcestershire sauce, except that it's thicker and sweeter - reminds me of teriyaki sauce, plus aonori (flakes of dried seaweed), katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), mayonnaise, or pickled ginger (beni shoga).  Some people had ketchup on it.  I liked the sauce, and got used to the seaweed and bonito, but stayed away from the mayo, ketchup and ginger.  

Variants can be made with different types of noodles, but I was never hot on those.  I read that in Hiroshima the ingredients are layered, rather than all mixed together in the batter, the way they are in Osaka.  

The Japanese are all about chopped vegetables, so it was hard, at first, to know what went into the dish, and I was constantly asking my husband what was in it.  He started to get a little testy when I picked something unrecognizable out of my pancake and asked, "What's this?" for the hundredth time. 

"It's good, just eat it." 

'But what is it?"

"It's a vegetable.  I don't know what you call it.  It's good."

"I've never seen anything like this before.  It looks like a rubber band." 

"It's a vegetable."

"No it's not!  Look, it even stretches like a rubber band!"

"Quit playing with your food!

"It is a rubber band!  I'm not eating this!" 

***  *** ***
In fact it was a rubber band, and when this was called to the waiter's attention, he apologized profusely and offered to cook me another one.  I'd already tried pork and beef, so I asked for shrimp.  Besides, the shrimp one was the most expensive.  

Fortunately, the rubber band incident didn't keep me from eating it again.  From that point on, however, my ex refused to go to any more okonomiyaki restaurants with me, but somehow I managed to find ways to go by myself or with girlfriends. 

If you'd like to see how it is made, here is a great step-by-step explanation, with pictures.   :-)

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