Most nights, I open the fridge to find a bounty of fresh and cooked vegetables, grains, beans – along with all those condiments and sauces in need of Kondo-ing.
When I’ve been too busy for my normal weekend shopping-and-cooking ritual, though, things can look a little sparse. But there’s almost always the ingredients to make okonomiyaki, Japan’s great savory cabbage pancake. I usually have cabbage because I buy a huge one and cut large chunks off it for making small portions of slaw. And here’s the great thing about okonomiyaki: There are so many regional variations, and it’s so adaptable (“okonomi” means “choice,” writes cookbook author Kimiko Barber) that if you want to throw in some other ingredients, too, you’re in no danger of violating some sacred principle.
I’ve had it lots of ways, but the common denominator, and the reason I keep coming back, is its irresistible combination of creamy and crunchy textures.
Barber’s basic recipe is straightforward: You toss cabbage, scallions and ginger in a simple batter, pan-fry it, and top with a sauce (commercial okonomi sauce is traditional, but I jumped at Barber’s substitution suggestion of A.1. Sauce) and crushed nori. In the spirit of the dish’s name, I cooked thin slices of smoked tofu on one side instead of bacon, to keep it vegetarian. If that’s not your jam, you could mix in cooked shrimp, squid, scallops, chicken or ground beef, or even ham or canned tuna. You could even play with adding cooked mushrooms or greens. And, as many other recipes suggest, a drizzle of Kewpie mayonnaise would not be a bad thing.
Your okonomiyaki, your choice.
Okonomiyaki with Smoked Tofu
Active: 30 minutes | Total: 60 minutes. 2 to 4 servings
This quick Japanese cabbage pancake takes well to lots of variations and additions. The original recipe called for bacon slices, but we’ve used thinly sliced smoked tofu to keep it vegetarian. Tempeh bacon would be another good substitute.
Make Ahead: The batter needs to rest for at least 30 minutes (at room temperature) and as long as 8 hours (refrigerated) before you make the pancakes.
Note: This recipe makes 2 large pancakes, which would serve two people nicely as a main-course dinner, or four as an appetizer.
6 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
5 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
7 ounces (about one-quarter of a large head) Savoy or green cabbage, finely shredded
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 scallions (white and green parts), trimmed and finely chopped
One 1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, grated (2 teaspoons)
3 ounces smoked tofu, thinly sliced (may substitute baked/marinated tofu or tempeh bacon)
A.1. Sauce, for serving
Crushed nori (dried seaweed) or furikake (Japanese rice seasoning), for serving
Whisk the flour in a mixing bowl so that it’s clump-free, then whisk in the soy sauce and water to form a smooth batter. Cover with a plate and let it rest for at least 30 minutes, or cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours. (Resting will make the batter taste less floury and keep the finished pancakes smooth and light.)
Add half the cabbage to the bowl with the rested batter and mix well. Then add the eggs, the remaining cabbage, scallions and ginger, stirring to incorporate. Divide the mixture in half.
Pour half the oil into a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, use a large serving spoon to spread one portion of the cabbage mixture into the skillet, and use the back of the spoon to spread it out to about an 8-inch round. (It will spread as it cooks).
Arrange half the tofu slices on top; cook the pancake until it is set and lightly browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Use two large flat spatulas to turn it over, and cook until the other side is browned, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate, and repeat to make and plate the other pancake.
Drizzle some A.1. Sauce over both pancakes, scatter the nori on top of each portion, and serve.
Nutrition (based on 4 servings) | Calories: 160; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 110 mg; Sodium: 270 mg; Carbohydrates: 15 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 2 g; Protein: 10 g.
(Adapted from “Cook Japanese at Home,” by Kimiko Barber. Kyle Books, 2016.)