Hooked on okonomiyaki

(Sarah L. Voisin/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The Japanese cabbage pancake called okonomiyaki, topped with flavorful sauces and mayonnaise, is best eaten hot off the griddle.

(Sarah L. Voisin/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - The Japanese cabbage pancake called okonomiyaki, topped with flavorful sauces and mayonnaise, is best eaten hot off the griddle.

When chef Alison Swope was developing an Asian-based menu for the Alexandria location of Teaism last year, she searched the Internet for a Japanese dish that would utilize the kitchen’s large griddle. Okonomiyaki, a wildly popular street food sometimes referred to as “Japanese pizza,” popped up over and over.

Okonomiyaki, which means “as you like it, grilled,” are robust cabbage pancakes made with add-ins such as shrimp, squid, vegetables, pork belly or sausage. A thin batter of wheat flour, bonito-kelp broth (dashi) and eggs binds the lot, which then gets generously doused with okonomi sauce (think Worcestershire, soy sauce and ketchup mixed together) and sweetly tart Kewpie brand mayonnaise, which tastes a bit like Miracle Whip. Bonito flakes, chopped scallions and aonori (dried seafood flakes, the chopped parsley of Japanese cooking) grace the pancake as garnishes.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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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.

“The Japanese don’t like to waste anything,” Swope says.

She added barely a third of a cup of batter to the cabbage, mixed it together and piled it onto a very hot griddle greased with clarified butter. She pressed the mix into a circle, neatening the edges with the side of a spatula. A few minutes on each side, and the okonomiyaki was done, nicely crisped on the outside.

Swope makes her own tempura bits and dashi, even though packaged tenkasu and instant dashi are readily available. When I asked Okochi whether he uses instant dashi, he feigned astonishment and asked sarcastically, “EXCUSE ME?” (Definitely does not.)

Two things that Okochi added to his batter that Swope didn’t were salty, pickled red ginger and yamaimo, a Japanese yam that, when grated, becomes viscous enough to act as a binder.

“Different regions do different things,” Okochi says.

It should be noted that the iteration of okonomiyaki discussed here is known as Osaka-style. In Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the cabbage and other savory ingredients are piled on top of a cooking pancake and layered with more batter. Sometimes, even noodles get added to the construction.

Okochi slathered his pancake, made with shrimp, squid and pork belly, with a thick coating of okonomi sauce and lots of mayonnaise, bonito flakes and aonori.

Throughout the process, he used the Japanese utensil of choice: a metal spatula that looks like a wide putty knife with a long handle. It does triple duty as a pancake flipper, wedge slicer and serving piece. He ate his okonomiyaki right off it.

I asked Okochi whether the dish was meant as a snack or a meal.

“It can be a meal as lunch, I guess,” he says. “In Osaka, they always eat rice with it, so the okonomiyaki is like a side dish. It’s like having a piece of bread while you’re eating a sandwich.”

The pancake he served was thicker and creamier than ­Swope’s, but both chefs’ offerings certainly were substantial enough to make a meal.

Adapting Swope’s recipe, I managed to create a more than credible version of okonomiyaki at home. The first order of business was assembling the Japanese ingredients, all of which I found at Hana Market at 17th and U streets in Northwest Washington.

My endeavors would have been much easier and less time-consuming had I not opted to make my own dashi and tenkasu. Because I didn’t own a tabletop electric griddle like the one Okochi cooked on, I used a 12-inch nonstick saute pan. It required a bit of steely determination and confidence to flip the pancake over without having it wind up all over the stove, which it did on the first attempt. Simply using two spatulas as flippers gets the job done less dramatically.

I tried traditional cabbage versions first, subbing broccoli slaw for cabbage in one of them, which worked beautifully. Graduating from there, I added shrimp, scallops and pickled ginger to my cabbage filling and decorate the pancake with the traditional sauces, plus bonito flakes (katsuobushi) and a seaweed-and-sesame topping used to flavor sushi rice (nori fumi furikake).

Playing on a latke (potato pancake) theme, I topped one okonomiyaki with smoked salmon, slivered red onions, diced cucumber and wasabi mayonnaise. For a breakfast version, I made one with bacon and topped it with over-easy eggs and nori fumi furikake, a rice seasoning.

For my last riff, I stretched the Japanese-pizza notion and fashioned an okonomiyaki margherita, melting fresh mozzarella on top and garnishing with squiggles of tomato paste and a chiffonade of basil.

That might induce a purist to crinkle his nose, but too bad. It is as I like it, and that’s okonomi in my book.

Hagedorn is a Washington food writer and former chef. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Teaism in Alexandria is located at 682 N. Asaph St.; 703-684-7777.

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