Okonomiyaki is a delicious savoury Japanese cabbage pancake – absolutely addictive. You can easily make it at home without some of the hard-to-find Japanese ingredients that are in traditional recipes and still get that fantastic flavour, chewy crunch, and creamy center of the original. (Skip to recipe.)
Are you a Word Nerd?
Do you love thinking about cool words? Have favourite words? Love the play on words? Do you get pleasure reading a dictionary or thesaurus? Do you search endlessly for just the right word to convey your exact meaning when writing? Repeat cool words over and over to yourself, sometimes singing them like songs?
Yup. You’re a Word Nerd, just like me.
And my latest pleasure has been this exciting new word. Okonomiyaki.
Break it down into parts and say it to yourself: oko-nomi-yaki. Once you’ve got that down pat, say it over and over quickly. Perhaps add a little sway of your shoulders or snap your fingers as you chant it in a sing-song voice.
There. Isn’t that fun? (If you said, yes, you’re most definitely a Word Nerd.)
Ever since I stumbled across this cool Japanese cabbage pancake somewhere on the internet (can’t remember where), I’ve been obsessed with not only the word, but the pancake itself. I’ve made it at least four times in the last couple weeks, and I’ve caught myself repeating the word Okonomiyaki over and over to myself while driving down the highway. And I catch myself shoulder-dancing and smiling while doing it. This word makes me happy.
Once I had actually made the pancake, I was even more in love. It is delicious! Savoury and satisfying, loaded with crunch and creaminess, and an absolutely addictive umami flavour. Okonomiyaki has elevated a pile of chopped cabbage held together with a simple batter to a whole new level of amazing taste sensation.
In Japan, okonomiyaki is a popular street food, cooked to order for you and beloved by all. Okonomi means ‘however you like it’ and yaki means ‘grilled’ in Japanese. This large pancake is comprised of chopped cabbage and green onions held together with a batter that gets a bit crispy on the outside and stays deliciously creamy and custardy on the inside. Sometimes other tasty ingredients are added in to the pancake, and always, tasty ingredients are piled on top of it.
The original Japanese recipes for okonomiyaki contain a number of ingredients that are not always easy to find in our regular grocery stores, and I know a lot of readers don’t have access to Asian supermarkets, so I set out to recreate a version of okonomiyaki (boy, I love saying that word!) that would be simple to prepare in a normal Canadian kitchen. I am thrilled with my results, and encourage you to try it. This big, bold, Japanese cabbage pancake is my new favourite lunch dish.
Just saying the word okonomiyaki makes me crave having one to eat right now!
Here are some of the simple substitutions I’ve come up with so you can make your own. I believe everyone should be able to satisfy their craving/curiosity for okonomiyaki, even if they aren’t in walking distance of a Japanese street vendor or have an Asian market in their area.
Use Sweet Rice Flour Instead of Nagaimo and Wheat Flour
That particular creamy quality of the interior of an okonomiyaki pancake comes from the addition of nagaimo (or yamaimo) to the batter. Nagaimo is a species of Asian yam that looks like a long thick stick. It has the unique quality of becoming slimy, oozing, and viscous when you grate it. When combined with wheat flour, the nagaimo slime helps keep the center of the pancake soft and creamy when cooked, rather than doughy. (I bought a piece of nagaimo at the Asian market, and had a lot of fun playing with it. It really did turn instantly slimy and stretchy as I grated it.) However, it’s not an ingredient that is common to find in regular grocery stores, so I wanted to come up with an easier way to get the same custardy texture on the inside of my okonomiyaki. I found that using sweet rice flour to replace the wheat flour + nagaimo achieved almost the same results, plus it makes the pancake naturally gluten free.
I love sweet rice flour and it is one of the staples in my gluten free pantry. It is made from sticky rice and is often called Mochiko or glutinous rice flour (‘glutinous’ meaning sticky, as opposed to ‘gluten’, the protein found in wheat). It can be found in health food stores and in the Asian section of my neighbourhood supermarket (Superstore). Sweet rice flour makes a delicious, soft, custardy okonomiyaki pancake.
Use Fish Sauce Instead of Bonito Flakes and Dashi Stock
Katsuobushi is dried, very thinly shaved flakes of bonito, a type of tuna. These are often stirred into the pancake dough and piled on top of the cooked pancake as a garnish. Dashi is a type of stock made from bonito flakes, and is used as the liquid in okonomiyaki. I found that using chicken stock (Better than Bouillon is great) and a couple teaspoons of fish sauce gave the same lovely umami flavour that katsuobushi would. And even if fish sauce isn’t specifically Japanese, it does the trick. If you don’t have a bottle of fish sauce in your pantry, you can substitute tamari, the Japanese soy sauce that is smoother and less salty than regular soy sauce, but fish sauce is found in most supermarkets and is a really lovely condiment to have on hand – if used judiciously it adds a depth of flavour without a fishy taste.
Use Crispy Rice Cereal Instead of Tenkasu
Another unusual ingredient in okonomiyaki is tenkasu – little beads of deep-fried tempura batter. They are added to the pancake to make it lighter and create little soft pockets in the dough. Well, just throw in a handful of Rice Krispies or other crispy rice cereal (not puffed rice) and they will do almost the same thing without the extra oil from deep-fried dough. Make sure you use gluten-free crispy rice, if needed.
Beni-Shoga – Just Skip It
Beni-shoga is a red, pickled Japanese ginger often included in traditional recipes for okonomiyaki. You can omit it in the pancake, and instead, serve pickled sushi ginger to eat with the cooked pancake, or omit it altogether.
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Okonomiyaki is really just made with a thin pancake batter that binds together some chopped cabbage. That’s it. You can stick with that, or go crazy and add other ingredients.
The possibilities for what you can put into this pancake are endless. A whole lotta cabbage and green onion are the base, but from there you can customize it ‘however you like it’. Replace some of the cabbage with whatever interesting bits you can find in your fridge: shredded carrots or radish, shaved sweet red pepper, bean sprouts, crunchy bits of water chestnuts, chopped herbs, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, bits of leftover cooked meat, sausage, or bacon, or chopped raw shrimp (don’t use other meats raw, as they won’t cook in time). Many Japanese recipes for okonomiyaki use slices of pork belly or bacon laid in the pan before the pancake mixture is added.
Buy ready-made Japanese (Kewpie) mayonnaise and Okonomiyaki Sauce or make your own with the easy recipes below.
Go For the Gusto with the Toppings
It is customary to drizzle the cooked Japanese pancake with two sauces: a sweet-tart okonomiyaki sauce and Japanese mayonnaise. These come in squeeze bottles and can be found in Asian supermarkets, but if you can’t find them, you can make decent versions of them easily at home (see below for the recipes). Okonomiyaki sauce tastes like a savoury, fruity ketchup. By adding a bit of sugar and Worcestershire sauce you can make a sauce that tastes similar. Japanese mayonnaise is more tangy than traditional mayonnaise, and I found that using a bit of rice vinegar produces a flavour that is similar. Both of these sauces are squirted on the pancake in lines to make a grid, then the pancake is topped with a shower of sliced green onions and toasted sesame seeds. Add anything else that tickles your fancy (maybe a few drops of hot sauce). In Japan it’s customary to add a spinkle of Aonori (seaweed flakes) and a handful of bonito flakes, which are so thin and feathery they ‘dance’ in the heat from the pancake. You could sprinkle on some finely shredded nori seaweed sheets, or just omit that bit.
We love the pancake served with just the okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, green onions, and sesame seeds.
Have fun and go to town with this great way to enjoy cabbage and pancakes in the same meal!
Let’s Get Cooking
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Kitchen Frau Notes: If the idea of making and flipping one large pancake intimidates you, just make two smaller pancakes and flip them with a spatula – they’ll still taste just as delicious.
I find it’s best to make the batter for one large pancake at a time. If you try to double the batch, you’ll get the batter settling at the bottom of the bowl so it’s hard to get even amounts of batter into each pancake.
It’s not always practical to use a ¼ cup of chicken stock, so I love having a bouillon concentrate in my fridge (Better Than Bouillon brand is very good). I can quickly stir together ¼ cup warm water + ¼ teaspoon chicken bouillon paste and have a tasty chicken stock to use in this recipe. But don’t worry, the pancake works well with just water, too.
Fish sauce makes the pancake especially savoury (though not ‘fishy’ at all), but you can also substitute with tamari, which is a light, smooth-tasting Japanese type of soy sauce. It’s usually made without wheat, but if you are gluten-free, double check to make sure.
- ½ cup sweet rice flour (glutinous rice flour/Mochiko)
- 1 large egg
- ¼ cup (60ml) chicken stock* (see notes, above) or water
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce or tamari* (see notes, above), gluten-free if necessary
- 2 packed cups chopped cabbage (½ lb/225gms), ¼ of a small head of cabbage
- 2 green onions/scallions, sliced (or 2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped onion)
- ¼ cup crispy rice cereal (gluten-free if necessary)
- 1 teaspoon oil
- okonomiyaki sauce (see below for a simple version)
- Japanese mayonnaise (see below for a simple version)
- sliced green onion
- toasted sesame seeds
- pickled sushi ginger
To chop the cabbage; cut the head of cabbage into quarters. Cut the core out of one quarter. Holding the quarter together so the layers don’t fall apart, cut it into slices about as thick as a pencil. Carefully stack two or three slices on top of each other, then cut the stack into pencil-thick slices again to make small dices of cabbage. Weigh it or pack it tightly into a measuring cup to make about 225 grams or 2 cups.
In a bowl, whisk together the sweet rice flour, egg, chicken stock, and fish sauce. Add the chopped cabbage, green onions, and rice krispies and stir to combine everything.
Heat the oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat.
Scrape the the pancake batter into the skillet and pat it into a 7 inch diameter circle about 1 inch (2.5cm) high or make two smaller pancakes if you wish. Use a spatula to shape the edges and tuck in any stray bits of cabbage. Keep pushing the spatula against the edges of the pancake for about the first minute of cooking, to push back any batter that oozes out the sides. Let cook for 5 minutes, lowering the heat slightly if the pancake gets too brown (lift up the sides with a spatula to peek underneath). You want the pancake to be a nice nutty brown colour, but not too dark.
To flip the pancake, invert a plate or put a lid on top of the skillet. Hold the handle of the skillet in one hand and put your other hand on top of the plate or lid. In one smooth movement, flip the skillet and plate, so the plate is on the bottom and the pancake has flipped onto the plate. (This is the only scary part – but it’s quite easy, really.) Return the skillet to the burner. Slip a spatula partially under the pancake to help slide the pancake along as you slide it back into the skillet, cooked-side-up. There will be a bit of batter and cabbage bits left on the plate. Scrape those into the skillet beside the pancake, and use a spatula to push them back into the pancake underneath the browned top. (If making two smaller pancakes, just flip them carefully with a pancake flipper.) Use the spatula to push any other loose bits back into the pancake, and cook the pancake on the second side for 5 minutes.
Slide the cooked pancake out onto a plate.
To serve: Put a few generous spoonfuls of Okonomiyaki sauce on top and spread it around to the edges. Squirt lines of Japanese mayonnaise across the top in a criss-cross pattern, or dollop little plops of the easy homemade version on top. Sprinkle with sliced green onions and toasted sesame seeds. Serve with a bit of pickled sushi ginger if you wish.
Makes one 7-inch okonomiyaki pancake. Serves 1 for a meal or 2 for a snack.
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Easy Okonomiyaki Sauce
- 4 tablespoons (¼ cup/60ml) ketchup
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (gluten-free if necessary)
Stir ingredients together.
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Easy Japanese Mayonnaise
- 4 tablespoons (¼ cup/60ml) good quality mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
Stir ingredients together and place in a squirt bottle to make grid lines on pancake or dollop on in small spoonfuls.
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どうぞめしあがれ (Douzo Meshiagare/Guten Appetit!)
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