Okonomi-yaki literally means “cook as you please” or “cook what you like,” and the restaurants which serve this dish are a fun place to have a meal, some drinks, and conversation. Some okonomi-yaki shops have one big counter skillet where everything is cooked by the staff. They frequently have some seats at the griddle and also tables around the rest of the room. But most okonomi-yaki shops have individual skillets at each table so that you can cook and season the food yourself—the cooking, after all, is part of the fun. (But the large number of cooking surfaces can lead to you taking home an “aroma souvenir,” so to speak, and your clothes smelling like oil.) The remainder of the post describes my visit to an okonoymi-yaki restaurant in a city to the west southwest of Tokyo. I have not seen such restaurants in my travels in the United States, but recall reading about a place somewhere in Los Angeles County.
Okonomi-yaki Restaurants Specialize in Pancakes and Noodles
Okonomi-yaki restaurants generally limit their offerings to pancakes and noodles. The pancakes are mixtures of various varieties of vegetables, meat, seafood, egg, flour and other seasonings. Somehow they acquired the nickname “Japanese pizza,” but the only real similarities are that both are round and flat, and both are relatively inexpensive. The noodles are a mixture of various vegetables, seafood and meat, and are usually called yaki-soba. Sometimes the noodles are layered with the pancake batter to make amazing combinations.
In a restaurant with a griddle at each table, your party will do the cooking. So if you order okonomi-yaki, the ingredients for each variety will be brought to you in a bowl, unmixed. You mix each batch, spread the mixture on the griddle, add some seasoning as you go—powdered seaweed and “special sauce” are popular—and cook until it is done. Before the pancake is cut into pieces for serving, it gets another topping of the “special sauce,” mayonnaise, and very thin shavings of katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked tuna). The end result is bold and salty, with a variety of textures, and interesting morsels of flavor waiting to be discovered as you eat.1
Update, October 25, 2020: Regarding “special sauce”: The TV network NHK World has a program called Trails to Oishii Tokyo that is broadcast in English and Chinese2, in which an English-speaking host explores a single ingredient/food/animal from the source to the dining table. It’s a fascinating program, providing superb lessons about Japanese ingredients, farming, and cooking. In mid-October 2020, they released an episode called “Sauce”, which turned out not to be about all sauces, but about a particular class of sauces that are simply called “sauce” in Japan. In general, they are characterized a complex balance of sweet, salty, sour, spicy (a fairly close analogue in the Western pantry is worcestershire sauce). It turns out that one of the members of Japan’s “sauce” family is a traditional topping for okonomi-yaki.
One of the nearly vegetarian versions that was on the menu contained cabbage, mochi (rice paste), pickled ginger, green onion, an egg, a premixed dough paste, and konnyaku (a yam-based noodle-like substance, the grey stuff on the right side of the bowl). Although the menu implied that this particular okonomi-yaki was all vegetable, the ring-shaped objects in the bottom part of the photo above are some kind of seafood, and we removed those before mixing it up. The pickled ginger was nicely dispersed through the pancake, and the mochi offered me a surprise as I learned what happens when mochi is heated: it softens and gains elasticity, providing a challenge to the diner.
Okonomi-yaki pancakes exist in countless varieties, including what one of my hosts called a “Tokyo-style okonomi-yaki.” This regional specialty involved a drawn-out process of arranging the dry ingredients into a ring, pouring in the liquid that remained in the bowl, stirring it around, and so on, until it became a messy, gooey pancake that my hosts had trouble pulling off pieces to eat.
The Dangerous Life of an Accessory
Being an accessory in an okonomi-yaki restaurant can be tough, as the instruction manual and timer pictured below illustrates. But for a diner, it is an enjoyable way to have a casual and leisurely meal with enough variety to make almost anyone happy.
Updated, October 25, 2020
- There are also restaurants where you sit at a communal griddle, and the chef cooks the okonomi-yaki or yaki-soba for your part, and also some where it is cooked in the kitchen and brought out in its finished state.
- It was previously called Trails To Tsukiji, named after the famous and enormous wholesale market Tsukiji near central Tokyo. One of the major modifications that Japan made in preparation for the (cancelled) 2020 Olympics was to move most of the operations of Tsukiji to a new, less central, location. Around the time of the move, NHK World renamed the program.