So… we almost moved to Tokyo. Startling news, right? Actually we still could go, and someday we may, but for now it’s tricky – even though it would be a remarkable experience. Why ever have we passed up such an extraordinary opportunity, you ask? Are we crazy? Well, quite possibly, but although it would have been a wonderful adventure, there are some significant practical hurdles to consider.
One major issue is The Hatchlings’ education; many expats are employed in the financial sector and relocate on absolutely phenomenal packages – often including housing, but most certainly the eye-watering cost of International school fees. With Mr Jolly Good Egg being an arty, media type we’d have to manage without such perks and live a more local lifestyle. Great, the authentic Japanese experience? Well, yes, immersing ourselves in the culture would be fantastic and a brilliant learning opportunity for all of us. However, we’ve been advised of the impossibility of sending non-Japanese speaking children to exclusively Japanese speaking schools. Understandably, with most expat kids being educated privately, the state schools just aren’t geared up to accommodate foreign pupils. Moreover, Japanese living costs are sky high (did I mention that Tokyo is the most expensive expat city in the world?), so finding the extra yen for multiple tuition fees would – even though the company is lovely and generous – be a real stretch. A frustrating situation for all concerned.
Anyway, enough waffle; let’s get back to the food. Swept up in an impulsive whirlwind of fervour, we, culinary speaking, began a whistle-stop tour of Japan. Replicating some mouth-watering recipes to accompany our zealous viewing of Studio Ghibli and other, more obscure, Japanese movies, a firm family favourite was okonomiyaki (‘whatever you like – grilled’): a super tasty omelette/ pancake/pizza hybrid, incorporating veggies, meat, sometimes noodles, and, curiously, a ‘flavour grid’ of a Worcester-alike sauce – plus mayonnaise. Healthy Japanese junk food, what’s not to like?
It transpires that there are two main versions: Osaka or Hiroshima style. The Hiroshima variation is layered: a pancakey disc topped with shredded cabbage, bacon and noodle layers is then adorned with a fried egg – delicious. Osaka cooks take a simpler, no-nonsense approach and mix the additional ingredients directly into the batter and omit the noodles – so it’s lighter too. Being equally tasty, but less fiddly, I favour the latter type. Both kinds of okonomiyaki are smothered with the aforementioned flavourful sauce, decorated with a lattice of Japanese ‘Kewpie’ mayo and strewn with spring onion confetti for a fresh, allium bite.
I must confess, I made an anglicised version; somewhat unsurprisingly, I had no dashi to hand, nor any katsuobushi (bonito flakes), aonori (dried green seaweed flakes) or nagaimo root. Hmmm, you may be wondering how on earth, having omitted several seemingly key ingredients, can this still be okonomiyaki? Yet, as there are countless variations and the dish isn’t at all similar to any other concoction I have ever made, I feel quite at ease calling it okonomiyaki. After all, the very name means ‘as you like it’, so there must be some margin for experimentation…
250g (2 cups) plain/all-purpose flour
270ml (2 cups) water (with dashi if you have some)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
½ a cabbage very finely shredded – a food processor or mandoline is invaluable here
6 -8 slices of bacon/thinly sliced pork
As there isn’t a definitive recipe, there’s a lot of leeway in terms of the vegetable and meat add-ins, so feel free to include whatever you fancy. It’s a great recipe for using up leftovers lurking at the back of the fridge. A slightly bendy carrot? Terrific. A few lonely shrimp? Bung them in! A forlorn and unloved chicken leg? Yep, you’ve got the makings of the kashimin-yaki variant. Half a bowl of Coco-Pops? Okay, maybe not, but you get the picture – quick, frugal and reduces wasted food.
Spring onions for garnish
Okonomiyaki sauce (or make an ersatz version from 4 tablespoons tomato ketchup, 1-2 tablespoons Worcester sauce, 3 teaspoons honey, 1 teaspoon rice vinegar and ½ teaspoon soy sauce – heated until bubbling). A honey BBQ sauce can be used in a pinch.
Whisk together the flour, water, eggs and seasonings. Stir in cabbage and optional vegetable, meat or seafood add-ins. Heat oil in a frying pan and ladle in spoonfuls of batter. Traditionally, okonomiyaki are around 20cm in diameter, however, I quite like to make mini (think American or Scotch pancake size) ones – around 3 per person. Once the underside is cooked, lay strips of bacon on top of each pancake and flip. Allow the bacon to cook through thoroughly. You could add a fried egg if you wish.
Slide on to a plate, bacon side up, and daub liberally with the okonomiyaki sauce. Add a mayonnaise lattice (a squirty bottle is handy) and sliced spring onions. Serve immediately.