Almost every tourist’s gastronomical experience in the land of the rising sun starts off with ramen, sushi, or tempura – some of Japan’s famous food. Many locals and foreigners order these dishes off the bat at Japanese restaurants. Diving a little deeper into the restaurant menu, however, tourists may come across a quirky dish called Okonomiyaki, Japan’s ultimate comfort food packed with tons of flavor, which is an absolute must-try.
Okonomiyaki: The Japanese Pancake / Crepe / Pizza / Omelette
Okonomiyaki cannot be described in just one way as it comes in many variations. To start off, its name can be broken down into two words – okonomi, which refers to one’s preference, and yaki, which refers to grilling. Okonomiyaki, then, roughly means to grill whatever one wishes.
Many think of it as a product of Japan’s take on the pancake, crepe, pizza, or omelet dishes of other countries. There is some truth to this assumption to an extent but it does not give full justice to the dish’s origin.
During the Edo period, a crepe-like pancake, called Funoyaki, served as a dessert at Buddhist ceremonies. This changed into something sweeter, called Sukesoyaki, during the Meiji period. It continued to evolve in the 1920s after the Great Kanto earthquake when the community experienced a lack of amenities and cooking it became a way to pass the time.
The desert gained a lot of popularity and different versions soon popped up, including ones that used fish, meat, and vegetables. By the late 1930s, when there was a shortage in rice supply, okonomiyaki established its role in Japanese cuisine by being an inexpensive but filling and nutritious snack.
Okonomiyaki is often associated with Osaka and Hiroshima for its main variations which originated from the two cities but is served in many restaurants all over Japan.
Osaka-style, or Kansai-style, okonomiyaki consists of flour, shredded cabbage, water, egg, grated yam, and other vegetables and meat. It is often compared to pancakes and omelets because of how it is prepared and cooked. All the ingredients are mixed in a bowl to create a batter which is then pan-fried until brown.
An Osaka-based restaurant claims to be responsible for the idea of incorporating mayonnaise into okonomiyaki as a topping. As such, another one of Osaka-style okonomiyaki’s distinctive characteristics includes its use of the thick and creamy dressing.
The dish has become such an integral part of the Kansai region’s culture that the local community treats it as a main dish instead of just a snack. Even though it already consists of carbs, it is eaten alongside rice in Kansai, which other regions of Japan consider a bit weird.
Okonomiyaki also goes by the name konamon, which refers to dishes made with flour, and okazu, which refers to dishes that go with rice, in Osaka and the Kansai region.
The ingredients needed to make Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki are basically the same as the ones for making Osaka-style okonomiyaki. However, the former differs from the latter by how it is cooked. Instead of mixing all the ingredients together, they are layered. There is no specific order of how the layers should go and varies from chef to chef. Usually, though, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki top layers consists of yakisoba or udon noodles and a fried egg.
The signature ingredient of the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is beansprouts. The dish also uses a lot more cabbage as compared to that of Osaka. A sweet sauce is used to season the okonomiyaki.
A Simple Recipe and Guide on How to Make Japanese Okonomiyaki and Okonomiyaki Sauce
Although okonomiyaki is basically a dish meant to grill whatever one may want to, there are some ingredients that need to be present for it to be scrumptious and authentic. The essentials include grated yam, tenkasu (tempura batter scraps/bits), cabbage, eggs, and flour. The simple recipe below by Nami Chen of Just One Cookbook can easily be done at home and can be modified according to one’s preference or style:
Okonomiyaki Ingredients (serves 4):
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 8 tbsp tenkasu
- 2 to 3 inches nagaimo or yamaimo (yam)
- 1/4 cup pickled red ginger
- 3/4 cup dashi (soup stock)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 large cabbage
- 4 eggs
- 220 grams sliced pork belly
- Vegetable oil
Okonomiyaki Sauce Ingredients (serves 4):
- 1 1/2 tbsp. sugar
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 3 1/2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 4 tbsp ketchup
- Japanese mayonnaise
- Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)
- Aonori (dried seaweed powder)
- Combine and mix the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl.
- Peel and grate the yam.
- Add and mix in the grated yam into the bowl of dry ingredients.
- Once the ingredients have combined well with each other, let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for an hour. Make sure to cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
- For the okonomiyaki sauce, combine and mix the sugar, oyster sauce, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce in a small bowl.
- Shred or mince the cabbage then set aside to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
- Cut the pork belly slices into smaller pieces.
- Get the batter from the refrigerator. Add and mix in the eggs, tenkasu, and pickled red ginger to it.
- Add and mix in small batches of the shredded or minced cabbage.
- Pour an adequate amount of vegetable oil in a large pan and heat over a medium setting.
- Place the batter in a circle on the pan, keeping it at a thickness of about 2 cm.
- Top it off with the pork belly pieces and cover the pan for roughly 5 minutes.
- Flip it over once the bottom side has turned brown. Press it from the top and the sides to fix the shape and keep it intact.
- Cover the pan for another 5 minutes or so.
- Flip it over again and let it cook for a minute or two without a cover.
- Set the okonomiyaki on a plate and brush with the okonomiyaki sauce.
- Add the toppings.
How to Eat Okonomiyaki Like a Local in Japan
Tourists planning a trip to Japan for authentic okonomiyaki should understand that eating the dish is a bit different as compared to eating other Japanese food. Usually, the practice in Japan is to eat what is being held by the chopsticks in just one bite. Obviously, trying to consume okonomiyaki in the same way would lead to quite a comical display.
- Use the edge of the flat spatula provided by the restaurant to cut the okonomiyaki in half.
- Cut it again in half, perpendicular to the first division, to produce 4 pieces.
- Put one-quarter of the okonomiyaki on a plate.
- The quarter may be eaten in multiple bites and placed back on the plate; this is not considered as bad manners as long as the plate is not being shared with anyone else.
Proper Table Manners
Once the okonomiyaki has been cut into smaller pieces, there is really not much more instructions needed. However, there are also a few other things tourists should be mindful of, specifically the proper table manners:
- A wet towel is often provided to customers upon arrival. This should be used to wipe one’s hands clean. Afterward, it should be put back on its tray and set aside. The towel can be used again when needed.
- Noisily consuming one’s meal is frowned upon and considered rude in Japan, with an exception for noodle or soup dishes. For the latter, and for drinking tea, noise represents content and satisfaction for the service.
- Tourists should never have their free hand waiting under their chopstick-held food for the purpose of catching food while eating. This is considered as bad manners by the locals.
- The chopsticks should never be stuck vertically on one’s food because this is similar to the offering ritual done at funerals.
- When eating with a group or sharing a meal with another person, the food must not be passed from chopstick to chopstick. Food held by two pairs of chopsticks attracts bad luck. Instead, a plate may be used to pass the food.
- If there will be drinking involved, both hands must be used to hold the container, regardless of one’s role as the giver or receiver. This gesture shows a sign of respect for the other person.
- Japan is not a country that practices tipping so many restaurants will not accept any extra monetary incentives. A service charge is often already included in their prices. For those who really want to show their gratitude, they prefer a polite thank you in the form of a bow.
Best Japanese Okonomiyaki Restaurant Options
Okonomiyaki is sold throughout Japan and there are numerous places for tourists to choose from. There are restaurants that serve okonomiyaki cooked to perfection by their chefs and others that allow the customers to cook the dish themselves at their table. Some of Japan’s best okonomiyaki restaurants that follow amazing recipes passed down from generation to generation include:
Mizuno is located in Osaka and is the go-to place for okonomiyaki. It is not a big restaurant so tourists can expect to wait in line for about 30 minutes. They have an English menu so foreign customers will not have to worry about any surprises with their order. The okonomiyaki is cooked at the table by one of the restaurant’s skilled chefs. Their Yamaimoyaki is highly recommended and has roast pork and scallops for toppings.
Kuro-chan has been serving okonomiyaki since 1956. It is located in Osaka and is considered a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with their okonomiyaki dishes priced at 530 (small), 730 (medium), and 950 (large). The place can only seat 12 customers at a time so tourists are advised to eat fast and not linger afterward to avoid being rude.
Okonomimura is a four-story mall filled with Hiroshima restaurants including 25 that specialize in okonomiyaki. Originally, Okonomimura was just a street lined by food stalls that continued to grow in number over time. However, the vendors had to evacuate the street in 1965 when the section was made into a park. Several of them were able to establish their own restaurants but many others could not. On the month of December of the same year, they decided to unite together to build a new Okonomimura to continue their businesses. The establishment is a 22-minute walk away from the Hiroshima station and describes itself as a food theme park.
- Asakusa Sometaro
Asakusa Sometaro is located in Tokyo and is believed to be among Japan’s first okonomiyaki restaurants. The place allows its customers to cook their own okonomiyaki and has a friendly team of staff available to assist and guide them through the cooking process.
The restaurant has tatami seating so customers have to remove their shoes and sit on the floor. It is a good place for tourists on a budget as their most expensive dish is only 900. They have Osaka-style and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki dishes.
Konamon is an incredible spacious restaurant that can accommodate up to 200 customers at a time. It is located in Tokyo and is often packed with guests but maintains a comfortable atmosphere.
Ushio is located on the 2nd Floor of the Kajikawa Seishido building in Tokyo. It has been featured numerous times in television and magazines and has become quite popular among tourists. Their okonomiyaki is cooked without using oil and majorly consists of vegetables. This is the perfect place to go to for those looking for a healthier, but just as flavorful, variation of the dish.
Hasshou is a famous restaurant in Hiroshima with a branch in Kyoudou, Tokyo. Their okonomiyaki is made of a lot of cabbage and pressed over and over again to produce a flat dish. They also have other equally delicious meals, such as vegetable stew, that are highly recommended by the locals.
Buchiumaya is located in Shinjuku, Japan and specializes in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. They put an incredibly generous amount of cabbage on their dishes. Their bestseller is their standard okonomiyaki but they also have a unique one which has layers of mocha and cheese.