For my money, the street and casual food of Japan is where you find some of the best flavours. Takoyaki, octopus dumplings, are everywhere – too tempting when I’m trying not to eat octopus – as are yakimochi (grilled rice paste cakes) being grilled over charcoal. Convenience stores like the 7-Eleven sell the tastiest onigiri. One of the genius things about onigiri is the way the nori is wrapped around the rice with a plastic barrier that slides off when you unwrap them, leaving a super-crunchy textural delight.
My favourite is okonomiyaki. Okonomi means “how you like” or “what you like” and yaki means grill, so it’s basically a combination of readily available ingredients in a batter, cooked on the grill. In Japan you would add mountain yam or use okonomiyaki flour that contains it. Mountain yam is used for flavour, texture and as a binder; there isn’t really a substitute, but I find the fritters work very well without.
While you can eat this dish in izakayas and teppanyaki restaurants everywhere, and it’s easy to cook yourself, the tastiest version I tried was from a cart in the hyper-touristy Asakusa district in Tokyo. The batter was light but somehow thick enough to give real bite, the flavourings simple, and there was just the right amount of the all-important mayonnaise and okonomi sauce.
Take the fact that okonomi means how you like literally and add or substitute any flavours you like. I add grated kumara to mine – it’s not traditional but really good, as are other finely chopped or grated vegetables. Prawns, shrimps, squid and Chinese sausage are also good added to the batter. For a vegetarian version you can just leave out the bacon or substitute with tofu, tempeh or the like – and I’m pretty sure you could make a vegan version with aquafaba, but I haven’t tested this yet.
Makes 4 (or 2 large ones of you prefer)
100g (⅔ cup) self-raising flour
5g packet dried dashi stock or 1 teaspoon salt
3 cups shredded cabbage (about ¼ cabbage)
1 small kumara, grated (about (⅔ cup)
2 spring onions, white and green separated, thinly sliced
oil for frying
6 strips bacon, halved
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
to serve: mayonnaise, bonito flakes, pickles such as ginger (or red capsicum, as I used), seaweed flakes/seasoning or togarashi/Japanese spice (optional)
Put the flour, dashi powder or salt and water in a large bowl and whisk together until smooth. Gently whisk in the eggs then fold in the cabbage, kumara and spring onion whites.
Heat a large, heavy-based frying pan or griddle to medium and coat with a little oil. Divide the mixture into 4 pancakes and spread out/flatten to about 2cm thick. Cook for 3 minutes, placing three slices of bacon on each while they cook and pressing in. Flip to bacon side down, cook for 4 minutes then flip again and cook for a further 3 minutes.
To make the okonomi sauce, mix together the tomato, Worcestershire, soy and oyster sauces.
Serve the okonomiyaki drizzled with mayonnaise and sauce, scatter with the greens of the spring onion and season with bonito, pickle and seaweed or togarashi seasoning to your liking.