Okonomiyaki is one of my favourite things to eat in Japan, a kind of fried pancake-omelette, based on cabbage and egg, with different combinations of vegetables and meats. It is fried on a teppan, a large hotplate, until both sides are brown and crispy, then served to the plate sliced up with a small spatula for eating. With the right combo of sauces, okonomiyaki is the ultimate comfort food, like a barbeque and a teppanyaki all rolled together. The name itself means ‘grilled as you like it’, so there’s no stopping the combinations!
Visun, A friend living in Tokyo, took us to Nishinaka Dori, Tokyo’s famous ‘monjayaki street’, a long street with no fewer than 75 monjayaki restaurants along it. The restaurant we went to had wooden walls and was covered in coloured signs with dancing cartoon ingredients and beer posters. The centrepiece of each table was a huge teppan, and we took our seats around it. A staff member came by and turned on the heat, and Visun ordered us two okonomiyakis with a round of cold beers. She returned with two big bowls filled with raw ingredients – egg, cabbage, cheese, vegetables, and bacon in one; a seafood variation in the other. Cindy mixed the whole mess together in the bowl until it looked like a eggy slurry of slimy chunks, and emptied it out on the hotplate, forming it together into a round shape. When one side had cooked, Visun took the spatula and flipped it, and it looked golden brown and extremely tasty. She covered the crispy side in special okonomiyaki sauce – a tangy barbequey sauce, followed by stripes of mayonnaise and chopped shallots.
Our group also ordered a monjayaki, a variation originating from Tokyo. The monjayaki is much more liquid than the okonomiyaki, and looks quite revolting before the cooking starts. The solid ingredients (cabbage, meat and vegetables) are stir-fried on the hotplate first, then formed into a doughnut shape. Inside that, a 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.
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. Sitting down to such rich, tasty comfort food in a smoky, lively restaurant filled with chefs and diners and energy was one of the best Japanese eating experiences we had.