Recipes: Making okonomiyaki that’s better than just OK

You can make okonomiyaki, the classic Japanese cabbage pancake, at home. We're giving you three versions: Vegetarian Okonomiyaki (top center large plate, with serving at left), Okonomiyaki with Shrimp (top right large plate, with serving below it) and Classic Okonomiyaki with Pork Belly (lower left large plate, with serving center bottom). Food styling by Wendell Brock / Chris Hunt /For The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

With a few tips from pros, you can create classic Japanese cabbage pancake at home

I’m pretty sure the first time I tried okonomiyaki was in Japan. A friend from Osaka took me to a restaurant to try her hometown’s famous cabbage pancake. l’m pretty sure I didn’t like it.

Since then, I’ve had a change of heart about okonomiyaki, and tried to make up for the blunder.

An umami bomb that gets its oomph from a collision of textures and flavors, the classic Osaka-style pancake is covered with a layer of pork belly, fried until crispy but still a bit soft at the middle, then topped with squiggles of Kewpie mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce; a confetti of bonito and nori flakes, a scattering of pickled red ginger.

Do you know how to pronounce “okonomiyaki?” How about cooking it? Learn how to make this Japanese pancake with Guy Wong, chef and owner Le Fat, Miso Izakaya and Ton Ton. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

What a magnificent mess.

Strewn over a hot pancake, the wisps of dehydrated fish wiggle as they come into contact with moisture and steam. It’s a quirky sight. Then when you snarf into a custardy wedge, with the almost melted cabbage, you experience a taste-bud rush, with just the right amount of sweet, salty, oily, acidic and fishy notes. It’s a great beer-drinking bite.

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Corban Irby, the chef behind Atlanta’s popular OK Yaki pop-up, shows us where to find okonomiyaki condiments on the Japanese aisle of Buford Highway Farmers Market in Doraville. Wendell Brock/For The AJC

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

After tasting Atlanta pop-up star Corban Irby’s crazy-good version, and hearing how he fell in love with Japan as a student, I decided it was time to try okonomiyaki at home.

Irby, who is in the middle of turning his OK Yaki pop-up into an East Atlanta brick-and-mortar, was reluctant to give me his recipe. I don’t blame him: He’s spent a decade perfecting his okonomiyaki cookery. He did offer to accompany me on a mission to Buford Highway Farmers Market — to discuss ingredients and share his considerable insight. (Gotta say the man knows his way around the Japan aisle.)

Takashi Otsuka, owner of Wagaya and Chirori restaurants and the new Wagaya Groceries on 14th Street, showed us how to make classic Japanese okonomiyaki. Wendell Brock/For The AJC

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

At the same time, I noticed Atlanta restaurateur Takashi Otsuka, a Saitama native who recently opened Wagaya Groceries in Midtown, had posted an okonomiyaki lesson on video. Otsuka, who also owns Wagaya and Chirori restaurants, kindly agreed to show me how he makes the dish, in person. Using information I gleaned from these two pros, plus my own research and experimentation in the kitchen, I came up with three recipes: Classic Okokomiyaki with Pork Belly, Vegetarian Okonomiyaki, and Okonomiyaki with Shrimp.

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Before you flip your pancake, keep in mind that okonomiyaki means “how you want it.” While cabbage is essential, you can add just about any kind of protein you desire (shrimp, squid, shredded chicken, Chinese sausage, ham). Or use leftover bits of this and that. In Hiroshima, they put noodles in the batter. You know I’ll be trying that next.

If you want to make okonomiyaki, the classic Japanese cabbage pancake, at home, here are some key ingredients: Chinese cabbage, Japanese Kewpie brand mayo and okonomiyaki sauce (in packages); nagaimo (yam), bonito flakes, okonomiyaki mix, and nori flakes. Styling by Wendell Brock / Chris Hunt /For The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Chinese cabbage: Make an effort to find it. (The head is flatter than regular cabbage.) It’s also sweeter and more delicate than ordinary cabbage, and easier to cut. The importance of thinly sliced cabbage became clear to me during my okonomiyaki tutorial with Otsuka. He tossed out his first batch of batter, saying the cabbage was too bulky. You need wispy sheds — never chunks! — so that you can make a flat pancake that binds together.

When Irby asked me how I was going to slice the cabbage, I told him, “with a knife.” He didn’t seem too confident and pointed me to a little Korean-made veggie slicer at the Buford market that looks like an ultra-wide potato peeler. At $4, the gadget was money well spent.

This Korean-made vegetable peeler, available at Buford Highway Farmers Market for $4, is extremely handy when it comes to slicing cabbage for okonomiyaki. The trick is to cut the cabbage thin. Wendell Brock/For The AJC

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Flour: Don’t hesitate to use an okonomiyaki mix such as Otafuku brand, especially if this is your first time at the okonomiyaki rodeo. You won’t need salt and leavening agents, and you’ll get the traditional Japanese flavor and texture. If you are making the pancake from scratch, all-purpose flour works fine. That said, Irby suggests low-gluten flour, in particular Chinese cake flour. He turned me on to Gong He brand Chinese cake flour (in an orange and white package; available at the Buford Highway market), and it tasted much better than all-purpose White Lily flour. I did not add baking powder or soda. Doing so will create a pouffier pancake. Adding salt and salty ingredients (like the pickled ginger) will pull the water out of the cabbage. Do that last.

Yam: It’s worth the effort to find Chinese yam (sometimes called nagaimo or Japanese mountain yam and available at farmers markets and Asian supermarkets, including Wagaya Groceries) because it provides the essential texture of real-deal Japanese okonomiyaki. Peel the yam, and grate it on a box grater. As you grate, it will disintegrate into a white goo. That’s what you want! Measure it in tablespoons. Once cooked, the yam imparts a slightly gummy texture that is the sign of a classic okonomiyaki. If you can’t find the yam, don’t sweat it. It’s OK to omit.

Takashi Otsuka grates Japanese yam to add to okonomiyaki batter at Chirori, one of his Japanese restaurants on 14th Street. Wendell Brock/For The AJC

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Pork belly: Look for thinly sliced pork belly, available in some Asian markets. It will stick to the pancake better than grocery store bacon. Though you can use American-style bacon (and many restaurants do), “I don’t think it tastes good at all," Irby says.

Sauces and garnish: Traditional okonomiyaki can be a festival of store-bought items, including Kewpie mayo and okonomiyaki sauce. You can use other brands of mayo, but Kewpie is rich and creamy. You can concoct your own okonomiyaki sauce, but according to Irby, “70% of restaurants in Japan” use the bottled stuff; Okonomi brand is iconic.

If you are vegetarian or vegan: Keep in mind that dashi (often used in place of water to make the batter) is made with fish, and thus not vegetarian. Obviously, neither are bonito flakes. Also, Worcestershire sauce (made with anchovies) and oyster sauce are commonly used in bottled okonomiyaki sauce. You can find plenty of vegan and vegetarian sauce recipes online. — Wendell Brock

If you'd like to make okonomiyaki, the classic Japanese cabbage pancake, at home, here are three versions to try: Classic Okonomiyaki with Pork Belly (top) with Vegetarian Okonomiyaki (bottom left) and Okonomiyaki with Shrimp (bottom right). Food styling by Wendell Brock / Chris Hunt/For The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

RECIPES

Here are three versions of the Japanese cabbage pancake known as okonomiyaki — a great one-dish meal to make and share with friends.

Classic Okonomiyaki with Pork Belly. If you've never made the Japanese pancake with cabbage, it's worth seeking out a packaged mix, which yields an authentic flavor without much hassle. You can easily find a mix online or at specialty markets around the city. This recipe is based on one Atlanta restaurateur Takashi Otsuka taught us at his Midtown restaurant Chirori. The Japanese-born Otsuka recently opened Wagaya Groceries, downstairs from his Wagaya Japanese restaurant on 14th Street. The store is a terrific resource for Japanese ingredients. (Food styling by Wendell Brock / Chris Hunt/For The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Classic Okonomiyaki with Pork Belly

This recipe was developed with guidance from Takashi Otsuka (owner of Wagaya, Chirori and Wagaya Groceries) and Corban Irby, owner of the OK Yaki popup and forthcoming restaurant.

Classic Okonomiyaki with Pork Belly
  • 1 cup okonomiyaki flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 4 cups thinly sliced cabbage
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons grated Chinese yam (also called Japanese mountain yam or nagaimo)
  • 2 teaspoons pickled red ginger (beni shoga), plus more for garnish (optional)
  • 2 eggs
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 3-4 bacon-size strips of pork belly, cut in half
  • Okonomiyaki sauce
  • Kewpie brand mayonnaise (or other mayo of choice)
  • Nori flakes (optional)
  • Bonito flakes (optional)
  • Mix okonomiyaki flour and water in a large mixing bowl until the flour fully dissolves. Stir in cabbage, scallions, Chinese yam, pickled red ginger (if using) and eggs. Do not over-mix.
  • Coat the bottom of a medium to large cast-iron skillet with a slick of vegetable oil. Heat over medium high until the oil glistens.
  • Spoon half the mixture into the pan, and spread out to form a circle, about 3/4-inch thick. Top with 3 or 4 pieces of pork belly. Fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the pancake is nicely browned on bottom. Flip the pancake, and cook for another 3-4 minutes, pressing to flatten.
  • Place pancake on a large platter. Repeat, adding more oil as needed and making a second pancake with the remaining batter.
  • Drizzle pancakes with okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise, and sprinkle with nori and bonito flakes (if using). Add a little mound of pickled ginger (if using). Slice into wedges and serve. Makes 2 medium-size pancakes, enough to serve about 3.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 536 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 10 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 38 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 138 milligrams cholesterol, 438 milligrams sodium.
Vegetarian Okonomiyaki. You can put just about anything in the Japanese pancake; we opted for cabbage, carrots, scallions, grated Chinese yam (nagaimo), and Japanese pickled red ginger (beni shoga). We topped it with a fried egg and some charred peppers. It's good plain, too. Food styling by Wendell Brock / Chris Hunt/For The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Vegetarian Okonomiyaki

We garnished this veggie-packed pancake with a fried egg and some blistered peppers, but it’s good without the extra touches.

Vegetarian Okonomiyaki
  • 4 cups Chinese cabbage, sliced very thin
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced, green and white part separated
  • 1 cup grated carrot
  • 2 teaspoons pickled red ginger (beni shoga)
  • 3 tablespoons grated Chinese yam (also called Japanese mountain yam or nagaimo)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 3/4 cup flour (all-purpose or Chinese cake flour)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 2 fried eggs (optional)
  • Charred shishito or other mild peppers of choice for garnish (optional)
  • Condiments of choice such as Kewpie mayo and Sriracha sauce (optional)
  • Place cabbage, all of the white parts of scallions and half the green, carrot, pickled ginger, grated yam, eggs and water in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with flour, and mix well to form a batter.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet until it shimmers. Pour in half the batter (all of it if you want a large pancake), and flatten with a spoon or spatula to make a tidy round pancake. Cook until nicely browned on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Carefully flip the pancake — if you need to, use a clean plate or lid to hold it steady — and fry until bottom layer is brown, about 6-8 minutes. Place on a large platter or plate.
  • Repeat with remaining tablespoon of oil and batter. Garnish pancakes with fried eggs and peppers (if using) and condiments of choice (if using). Garnish with remaining scallions. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 221 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 7 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 10 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 93 milligrams cholesterol, 88 milligrams sodium.
Okonomiyaki with Shrimp. This recipe for small, easily manageable pancakes is inspired by one in "The Dinner Plan" by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Abrams, $29.99). You can make them any size you want. Our version is topped simply with mayo, Sriracha and scallions. Feel free to embellish with okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes (katsuobushi), Japanese pickled ginger (beni shoga) or seaweed flakes (aonoriko). Food styling by Wendell Brock / Chris Hunt /For The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Okonomiyaki with Shrimp

This recipe for small, easily manageable pancakes is inspired by one in “The Dinner Plan” by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Abrams, $29.99). The original calls for 2/3 cup of all-purpose flour and 1/3 cup of cornstarch, which I tried and liked, though I found Chinese cake flour to yield a less gummy pancake. (See What You’ll Need section.) Make these any size you want. Feel free to add additional garnishes and condiments of choice such as okonomiyaki sauce, bonito and nori flakes and Japanese pickled ginger.

Okonomiyaki with Shrimp
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce (I used okonomiyaki sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 cups very thinly sliced Chinese cabbage
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced, divided
  • 1/2 pound large cooked shrimp, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup flour (I used Chinese cake flour)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more as needed
  • Mayonnaise
  • Sriracha or other hot sauce
  • In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, chicken broth or water, oyster sauce, soy sauce and salt. Set aside.
  • Place cabbage, 3/4 of the scallions (you’ll want to save some green slices for garnish) and shrimp in a large mixing bowl. Pour in egg mixture and toss to coat. Sprinkle the flour on top and toss to coat. Don’t over-mix or the batter will start to get soupy.
  • In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Spoon about 1/2 cup of the batter into the skillet. Use a spatula to lightly pat down the top of the mound to form a round about 3 inches in diameter by 1/2-inch tall. Repeat until the skillet is full, but not overcrowded. (I could only get 2 in my pan.) Cook, undisturbed, until golden brown on bottom, about 4-5 minutes. Flip and cook until cooked through and golden brown, about 3-4 minutes more. Drain on paper towels.
  • Add more oil to the pan, as needed, and continue frying pancakes until you’ve used up all the batter. If there’s liquid in the bottom of the bowl, don’t use that.
  • Serve with mayo and Sriracha, or mix the two together and generously brush it across the top of the pancakes. Garnish with remaining scallions. Makes about 6 (3-inch) pancakes.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per pancake: 181 calories (percent of calories from fat, 27), 12 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 141 milligrams cholesterol, 653 milligrams sodium.

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