Thursday, December 19, 2013

Japancakes, As You Wish

Pop quiz:  How is a pizza like a pancake?*

I'll give you a hint, they both also have something in common with a salad and with the recipe below.

Give up?

I'd claim that each of these are incredibly simple in their purest form, and yet are limited only by the cook's imagination.  Ricotta pancakes?  Sure, why not!  Mayonnaise pizza?  Surprising, perhaps, but not actually all that bad.  I've had weirder.

Okonomiyaki, what I call Japancake, is a similar kind of food.  The Japanese name tells you everything you need to know.  The okonomi (お好み) part means "as you like it," and yaki (焼き) - the same yaki in teriyaki, and yakisoba, by the by - tells you it's grilled.  I've also heard okonomiyaki called Japanese pizza or Japanese fritters.

Japancake is a grilled-to-order fast food that is deceptively comprised of more veggies than carbs.   They're often found in festival stalls, at least in my experience, and every here and there one can find them in restaurants, particularly in places like Osaka and Hiroshima.  My first experience of okonomiyaki was with some friends at a specialty restaurant where we simply picked what we wanted off the menu (not unlike picking pizza toppings) and then everything was brought to us raw, in a bowl, with the batter alongside.  Cooking your own dinner is kind of a thing there,  you see.  So I watched in fascination as my friends showed me how to mix it all up and slap it on the griddle, then cover it with mayonnaise (it's a very popular condiment), a kind of barbecue sauce, seaweed, and fish flakes.

If I had you up until the mayo and fish flakes, hang in there.  That's the joy of Japancakes: the whole point is they are made as you like them.  Hate mayo and fish?  Unsure about seaweed on junk food?  Leave them out!  It's your dinner, after all.

The base of a Japancake is usually the same.  It's a very runny basic batter over shredded cabbage.  Now, before you feel disappointed because you hate cabbage, let me ask you: what dishes are you thinking of that make you hate it?  If it's something with a strong smell or flavor like stuffed cabbage, kraut, or coleslaw that you're picturing, your problem might not be cabbage itself but rather the way it's made.  The cabbage in Japancakes is crisper and leafier, closer to a lettuce flavor, than in most dishes we're familiar with in the west.

But hey, here's the kicker.  Remember the okonomi part?  This dish is all about doing things your own way.  If cabbage isn't your thing, swap it out for some other shredded veggie.  I usually make mine a mix of half cabbage and half other fillings, as you'll see below.  Suit yourself!  Really!

A quick version of the recipe is at the bottom of the post, as usual.

Japancakes (Okonomiyaki)

Total Real Time:  20-30 minutes, tops, including vegetable shredding and pre-cooking meats.

Weirdest ingredient:  bonito flakes.

Like breakfast pancakes, these come together really fast once you have the ingredients gathered up.

Step one is to make your batter and let it sit to rest for a minute or two while you get your other bits together.  Now, in Japanese markets - or occasionally other Asian grocery stores here in the States - you can buy specialty okonomiyaki flour.  It's regular flour with things like grated yam, MSG, and sometimes fish flavorings in it.  Mine had expired (I make Japancakes maybe twice a year), so I tossed it and used whole wheat flour instead.  I can't honestly say I felt robbed of any particular experience.  If you buy okonomiyaki flour there will be instructions on the back for how much flour, egg, and liquid to use.  Since I went with whole wheat flour I'll give you my measurements.  If you use white flour, just scale back the liquid a bit since whole wheat flour is thirstier than white.

For three pancakes (which ended up being my dinner and two lunches) I used one-half cup of whole wheat flour with a generous pinch of salt, two eggs, and one-half cup of water.  If you have dashi (a kind fish stock) or vegetable stock on hand and want to use that, go ahead.  Just omit the salt.  Whisk all that up and put it aside.

As I mentioned above, you could go as simple as just cabbage, or you can get crazy.

I didn't actually use the yam.  That made it into the picture because in my exuberance I grabbed everything in my produce basket.  You could use a yam or potato, I suppose, though you'd want to cook it first.  The shrimp in the picture are precooked, deveined, and shelled.  Imagine that you're making a salad.  You don't want to put anything into a Japancake that you're not willing to eat raw, since it doesn't actually cook for all that long.

First I shredded the cabbage.  It was a small head to begin with, and I used maybe 1/5th or 1/6th of it.

If you don't want to use other veggies, then double up on the cabbage.  I also julienned up some summer squash:

And very, very finely shredded some carrot, red onion, and bell pepper:

All in all I probably had around 2-3 cups of filling.

Depending on what's in season, at other times I've also been known to add spinach, zucchini, sausage, avocado, corn, black beans, salmon, basil, sautéed mushrooms, salmon, beets, eggplant, artichoke, brussels sprouts, okra, kale, or scallions.  If it's a veggie, shred it super thin.  If it's a meat or tuber, cook it first.  Again, it's all up to you.

Speaking of cooking it first, I wanted some junk in my junkfood.  So I diced up a slice of bacon and fried that up:

I added that to the bowl with the veggies and shrimp, and then poured the batter on top.

Mix it all up, just enough to coat the veggies.  If you've got too much filling then whip up a little extra batter.  You're looking for enough to coat the veggies and make them stick together.

Then grab a big spoonful and plop it onto a skillet that's been heating on medium-high with a splash of oil.  Against my better judgement I used the oil left over from the bacon, but typically I'll use a tiny spritz of olive oil mixed with an even smaller spritz of sesame oil.  If you've got a really good nonstick pan you might not need oil at all.

What you're going for is a salad that's stuck together by the batter.  Press it down to be rather flat, since otherwise it'll be hard for the batter in the middle to get fully cooked.

About 5-10 minutes on a side should do it, until it's golden brown on both sides.

Now, the first time you try this I'd suggest leaving the toppings off altogether and just enjoying it for what it is.  But if you're willing to go whole-hog, what you'll want are Kewpie mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, dried bonito flakesseaweed, and red pickled ginger.  These can all usually be found in Japanese groceries and some Asian markets.  If you don't have them on hand, you could try regular mayo and possibly even jury-rig up some okonomiyaki sauce using 3 parts ketchup to 1 part worcestershire and 1 part soy sauce (e.g. 3 tsp ketchup, 1 tsp worcestershire,  1 tsp soy sauce).  Or heck, be creative.  One time I put sesame salad dressing on it.  This dish is your playground.  I give you permission to do as you please.

Everything but the mayo for me, please!  I love watching the bonito flakes "dance" in the steam from the Japancake.

*Trivia:  Although the Mad Hatter's riddle was originally written to have no answer at all, Carroll's answer to why a raven was like a writing desk was published in a later edition as follows:  "Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!

Okonomiyaki Recipe

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup water plus a dash of salt, or stock without added salt  (NOTE: if using white flour, start with 1/4 cup of liquid and gradually add more until batter is runny but not watery)
  • 2 eggs (can use any desired substitute)
  • 2-3 cups shredded vegetables (recommended: at least 1 cup thinly shredded cabbage)
  • 1/4 cup salad shrimp, deveined, cooked, and peeled
  • 1 slice bacon, cubed and cooked
  • other fillings as desired


  1. Whisk together water, liquid, and eggs and set aside.
  2. Separately cook any vegetables or meats that cannot be eaten raw and place together in a large mixing bowl with raw shredded vegetables.
  3. Pour batter over fillings and stir to coat.
  4. Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet on medium-high.  Portion out 1/4 to 1/3 of the mixture into the skillet, forming a flat pancake.  Be careful not to pile the pancake too high or the middle will not cook properly.  Thinner is better.
  5. Cook 5-10 minutes on a side, or until each side is golden brown and the pancake is cohesive.
  6. If desired, top with okonomiyaki sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise, bonito flakes, seaweed, and/or red pickled ginger.  
  7. Serve hot.  Pairs well with yakisoba.

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