Now, the idea of cabbage pancakes might not seem rhapsodic. But if you were to ask Americans who have lived in Japan or Japanese people who live here about okonomiyaki, their eyes would light up. They would ask you where to find them.
When Swope first served me one last year, it looked a right mess, with thin shavings of bonito dancing to and fro on top. But as I dived in, I found myself unable to stop eating it.
“Pizza” is a bit of a stretch. Crisped crepe is closer to reality.
“A lot of the places that serve okonomiyaki in Japan have tables with griddles in the center of them, so you make them right there,” Swope says. “They bring out the components, and you make your own okonomiyaki and share them with your friends.”
Swope serves hers out of Teaism’s kitchen. The chef likes to put her own twist on things, so what really appeals to her is that what gets added to the master cabbage batter or used for toppings on finished pancakes is a matter of personal preference. So adorning a vegetarian version with sauteed spinach and portabello mushrooms is just fine, as is serving a breakfast order topped with turkey bacon and fried eggs.
Thanks to chefs like Swope, okonomiyaki may be crossing over into the culinary mainstream beyond the few Japanese or Asian-fusion restaurants in Falls Church or Annandale where I managed to track them down, such as Maneki Neko, Ara Fusion Restaurant and Honey Pig Izakaya.
At Artifact Coffee, Spike Gjerde’s new cafe in Baltimore, chef Ben Lambert makes a version; he got hooked on them when he was 18 and living in the East Village in Manhattan. Also in Baltimore, at Pabu in the Four Seasons Hotel, chef Jonah Kim serves okonomiyaki made with Maryland blue crab, pork belly and a sunny-side-up egg.
In Washington, trendsetter Katsuya Fukushima is toying with the idea of putting okonomiyaki on the menu of his recently opened Penn Quarter ramen bar, Daikaya, once the upstairs izakaya opens. Kaz Okochi is working out the logistics to serve them at Kaz Sushi Bistro, perhaps in individual iron skillets.
Swope and Okochi each showed me how they make okonomiyaki. Swope threw together two handfuls of chopped cabbage (packaged coleslaw mix, actually) and half-cups or so of chopped scallions and crunchy tempura bits (tenkasu) that in Japan might be leftovers scooped out of the fryer.