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.