Okonomiyaki is the ultimate winter comfort food in Japan. A heavy savoury dish, it might be described as a fried cabbage pancake with additional meats, vegetables, or noodles. When translated, it means ‘cooked/fried how you like it’, giving away okonomiyaki’s status as the classic meal of many variations.
Okonomiyaki is one of my favourite things to eat in Japan, and there are plenty of options to consider to find the perfect one.
Basic ingredients of an okonomiyaki
The basic filling is usually made up of a typical list of delicious ingredients – flour, cabbage, nagaimo, dashi stock, and eggs.
But then things get more fun – there are variations, and you might be looking at pork belly, seafood, cheese, vegetables, even a pile of yakisonba or udon noodles! Exactly what goes into an okonomiyaki depends on the restaurant, and the region.
The raw ingredients are typically mixed together in a bowl, and served to the table, ready for cooking.
Once cooked, the masterpiece is finished off with a sticky, sweet barbecue sauce, bonito flakes (a dried fish flake) that dance and twirl as they interact with the steam, followed by chopped dried seaweed, and stripes of creamy mayonnaise.
How to cook okonomiyaki
Once the bowl of raw ingredients arrives on the table, okonomiyaki is fried on a teppan, a large hotplate in the centre of the table. When the first side is brown and crispy, the patty is flipped over until both sides are cooked.
The okonomiyaki is eaten with a small spatula known as a hera or kote, which you use to chop bite-size pieces from the main dish. Once chopped, chopsticks are used.
But that’s not always the case – some smaller establishments will cook the okonomiyaki for you in their kitchen, and serve the completed dish to you, ready to eat. Other kitchens will fry up the okonomiyakis on massive teppans in the restaurant, so you can watch its progress. And don’t forget, you can often find okonomiyaki at street stalls and markets!
The different variations of okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki, as the name suggests, come in many incarnations, and many regions around Japan claim to have the definitive version.
The classic okonomiyaki is the one described above, a giant mixture of all the tastiest ingredients, and cooked as a pancake.
We sat down for a ‘cook-at-the-table’ style okonomiyaki with friends in Tokyo. The restaurant had wooden walls and was covered in hand-coloured signs with dancing cartoon ingredients and beer posters.
The teppan was fired up, and we took our seats around it. A staff member came by and took our orders, and soon two bowls of okonomiyaki ingredients appeared, with the obligatory round of cold beers.
I stirred the slurry. Raw ingredients – egg, cabbage, flour, cheese, vegetables, and bacon in one; and a seafood variation in the other.
The eggy slurry of slimy chunks was emptied out on the hotplate, and we used spatulas to form it together into a round shape. It looked awful in the beginning.
But then, when the first side had cooked, it was flipped, and it looked golden brown, crispy, and extremely tasty. While it continued to cook, the crispy side was covered in special okonomiyaki sauce – a tangy barbequey sauce, followed by stripes of mayonnaise and chopped shallots.
Monjayaki, Tokyo’s variation of okonomiyaki
Tokyo has its own specialty version of okonomiyaki. The monjayaki is much more liquid than the okonomiyaki, and has a final consistency which is melted cheese-like.
The solid ingredients (cabbage, meat and vegetables) are mixed with extra water or daishi, stir-fried on the hotplate first, then formed into a doughnut shape.
Inside that, the runny batter is poured and allowed to cook, and then stirred together to combine the dish. The result is a steamy pile of vomity gloop, and does not look very appetising. But the more it cooks, it gets crispier and more delicious, and the monjayaki is scooped straight off the hotplate with a hera, a small spatula.
Where to find the best monjayaki in Tokyo
For the best choice of okonomiyaki and monjayaki restaurants in the heart of Tokyo, track down Tsukushima Monja street. This long street is a dedicated street for okonomiyaki, that has no fewer than 75 restaurants to choose from!
Hiroshimayaki – the okonomiyaki with noodles
We tried another version a few weeks later, Hiroshima’s hiroshimyaki. This was probably the best of the lot. The ingredients remain mostly the same, but the hiroshimayaki is fried up with without being scrambled too much, so it tends to be more layered.
Once it is cooked, the signature ingredient is added; a generous pile of soba noodles, placed underneath the hiroshimayaki. It was a freezing cold January day when we sat down to experience our first hiroshimayaki, prepared by the chefs that fried dozens of hiroshimayaki across a humongous 5 metre long teppan.
Where to find the best hiroshimayaki in Hiroshima
In the downtown Shintenchi district, you can find the incredible Okonomimura building, which calls itself a ‘temple of okonomiyaki!’.
This huge 4-story building houses 25 okonomiyaki restaurants all together!
A variation of the okonomiyaki sold as street food is the hashinaki, which is an okonomiyaki wrapped around two skewers.
All types of okonomiyaki are rich, tasty comfort food enjoyed in a smoky, lively restaurant filled with friends, chefs and diners.
The okonomiyaki dining experience was one of the best Japanese eating experiences we had. For me, the gold medal goes to the classic okonomiyaki. Can’t beat the original!
Have you tried the different varieties of Okonomiyaki? What is your favourite? Let me know in the comments!