Okonomiyaki: The Japanese pancake to flip over

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Variations

To make one seafood okonomiyaki, add to 1 serving of the pancake-cabbage mixture: 3 ounces of shrimp or sea scallops, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, and 2 teaspoons chopped pickled ginger. Cook as directed above. Serve hot, topped with 2 teaspoons okonomi sauce, 2 teaspoons of Kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes (to taste).

To make one smoked salmon okonomiyaki pancake, cook the pancake as directed above, covering the finished pancake with 3 ounces of sliced smoked salmon then topping it with 2 teaspoons of wasabi mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of slivered red onion, 1 tablespoon of peeled, seeded cucumber cut into 1/4-inch cubes and aonori or nori fumi furikake (to taste).

To make one margherita okonomiyaki pancake, preheat the broiler. Thinly slice 3 basil leaves and add to the pancake-cabbage mixture. Cook as directed above, making sure to use an ovenproof skillet. Top with 3 ounces of sliced fresh mozzarella, then broil for 1 minute to melt the cheese. Transfer the pancake to a plate. Serve hot, garnished with 1 teaspoon's worth of tomato paste from a tube, squeezed in a few squiggles, and 3 additional basil leaves, thinly sliced.

To make one egg-and-baconomiyaki, fry two eggs (sunny-side up or over-easy or poached) in a small nonstick skillet; keep warm. Pile the pancake-cabbage mixture into a 10-inch round in separate 12-inch skillet as directed above. Lay 2 strips of bacon on top, using them to cover as much of the surface as possible. Once the bottom is nicely browned, flip the pancake over. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bacon is nicely browned. Serve hot, topped with the fried eggs, nori fumi furikake and chopped scallions.

When chef Alison Swope was developing an Asian-based menu for the Alexandria, Va., location of Teaism last year, she searched the Internet for a Japanese dish that would utilize the kitchen's large griddle. Okonomiyaki, a wildly popular street food sometimes referred to as "Japanese pizza," popped up over and over.

Okonomiyaki, which means "as you like it, grilled," are robust cabbage pancakes made with add-ins such as shrimp, squid, vegetables, pork belly or sausage. A thin batter of wheat flour, bonito-kelp broth (dashi) and eggs binds the lot, which then gets generously doused with okonomi sauce (think Worcestershire, soy sauce and ketchup mixed together) and sweetly tart Kewpie brand mayonnaise, which tastes a bit like Miracle Whip. Bonito flakes, chopped scallions and aonori (dried seafood flakes, the chopped parsley of Japanese cooking) grace the pancake as garnishes.

Now, the idea of cabbage pancakes might not seem rhapsodic. But if you were to ask Americans who have lived in Japan or Japanese people who live here about okonomiyaki, their eyes would light up. They would ask you where to find them.

When Swope first served me one last year, it looked a right mess, with thin shavings of bonito dancing to and fro on top. But as I dived in, I found myself unable to stop eating it.

"Pizza" is a bit of a stretch. Crisped crepe is closer to reality.

"A lot of the places that serve okonomiyaki in Japan have tables with griddles in the center of them, so you make them right there," Swope says. "They bring out the components, and you make your own okonomiyaki and share them with your friends."

It should be noted that the iteration of okonomiyaki discussed here is known as Osaka-style. In Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the cabbage and other savory ingredients are piled on top of a cooking pancake and layered with more batter. Sometimes, even noodles get added to the construction.

Adapting Swope's recipe, I managed to create a more than credible version of okonomiyaki at home. The first order of business was assembling the Japanese ingredients.

My endeavors would have been much easier and less time-consuming had I not opted to make my own dashi and tenkasu. Because I didn't own a tabletop electric griddle like the one Okochi cooked on, I used a 12-inch nonstick saute pan. It required a bit of steely determination and confidence to flip the pancake over without having it wind up all over the stove, which it did on the first attempt. Simply using two spatulas as flippers gets the job done less dramatically.

Okonomiyaki

Makes four 10-inch

Using white cabbage coleslaw mix, even one mixed with carrots and red cabbage, is a huge time saver. Instant dashi may be substituted for the dashi broth in this recipe. Follow the directions on the packets if using them, or dissolve instant dashi, such as Hondashi brand, in boiling water at a ratio of 1 teaspoon of granules per cup of water. MAKE AHEAD: The batter can be made and refrigerated a day in advance. It's best to assemble the cabbage mixture just before serving. The optional wasabi mayonnaise needs to be refrigerated for at least 4 hours before serving. From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn; cabbage batter adapted from a recipe by chef Alison Swope of Teaism in Alexandria, Va.

1 cup plus 2 tablepoons flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1 cup homemade or store-bought vegetarian dashi (see accompanying recipe)

1 large egg, beaten

24 ounces (8 cups) shredded cabbage or coleslaw mix

2 cups tempura bits (see accompanying recipe)

2 cups chopped scallions, white and light-green parts, plus more for garnish

4 teaspoons canola oil

8 tablespoons okonomi sauce or tonkatsu sauce, for garnish (see headnote)

8 teaspoons wasabi mayonnaise, Kewpie brand mayonnaise or Kewpie-style mayonnaise, for garnish (see NOTES)

Aonori (seaweed flakes) or nori fumi furikake (rice seasoning blend), for garnish (see headnote)

Whisk together the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a medium bowl. Whisk in the dashi and egg until the batter is combined, but do not overmix. Small lumps should remain.

For each pancake, mix together 2 cups of cabbage, 1/2 cup tempura bits, 1/2 cup of the scallions and one-fourth of the batter in a separate bowl until well combined.

Heat a teaspoon of the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Pile in the pancake mixture and use the side of a spatula to tap it into a 10-inch round about 1/2-inch thick. Let the pancake cook for about 3 minutes, or until the batter is set and the bottom is nicely browned.Use two spatulas to carefully turn over the pancake, keeping it in one piece. Cook for about 3 minutes, until it is cooked through. Transfer to a plate; drizzle with okonomi or tonkatsu sauce; wasabi mayonnaise or Kewpie mayonnaise; and aonori or nori fumi furikake.

Repeat the process with the remaining oil and pancake mixture to form and cook 3 other pancakes, garnishing as each one is done.

Serve right away.

Notes

To make wasabi mayonnaise, whisk together 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon of wasabi powder in a medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 3 days.

To make Kewpie-style mayonnaise, whisk together 1/2 cup of mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon of seasoned rice vinegar. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Vegetarian Dashi

Makes 4 cups

Dashi is the mainstay fish broth of Japanese cooking, acting as the foundation of many dishes, such as miso soup. It is most often made with bonito and seaweed, but many cooks opt instead to use instant dashi granules dissolved in hot water. At Japanese markets, you can buy packets of vegetarian dashi mix, but the recipe offered here is simple to make and much more full-bodied. Kombu is a form of dried, edible kelp. Wakame is a kind of dried seaweed whose leaves expand in hot water. Bragg Liquid Aminos is a liquid concentrate made from non-GMO soybeans and amino acids. Soy sauce is a reasonable substitute. MAKE AHEAD: This broth is a great substitute for vegetable or chicken broth in most recipes. It can be refrigerated for several days or frozen for up to 6 months.

4 cups water

1/2 ounce kombu, cut into 3-inch pieces (see headnote)

1/4 cup wakame (see headnote)

1/2 cup mirin

2 teaspoons sugar

5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Bragg Liquid Aminos or low-sodium soy sauce (see headnote)

Bring the water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Remove from the heat, then add the kombu, wakame, mirin, sugar and liquid aminos or soy sauce.

Cool completely, then strain, discarding the solids. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.

Tempura Bits

Makes about 4 cups (8 servings)

These crunchy strings provide texture in okonomiyaki. You'll need a large squeeze bottle, which will help create strings when the batter hits the oil, and an instant-read thermometer. MAKE AHEAD: The bits can be made a day in advance and stored in an airtight container. From food writer and former chef David Hagedorn.

1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup club soda or sparkling water

1 tablespoon Sriracha

Canola oil, for frying

Line a baking sheet with several layers of paper towels.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, soda and Sriracha in a medium bowl until smooth. Transfer to a large squeeze bottle.

Pour the oil to a 1-inch depth in a heavy-bottomed pot. Heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Working in batches, squeeze strands of the batter into the oil; fry until golden brown, about 30 seconds. Stir them using a skimmer or Chinese strainer, which you'll then use to transfer them to the lined baking sheet.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a day.