The “anything goes” food!

Nothing works up an appetite like a nice hike on a warm, early spring day! Okonomiyaki is a wonderful dish, so named because you are free to add any ingredients that you like (okonomi means “what you like” and yaki means “grilled” or “cooked”). The base consists of wheat flour, stock (or water), shredded cabbage, and usually an egg or two, but it is the addition of ingredients, some of which you might never consider mixing together in one dish (cheese from France, kimchi from Korea, a bit of prosciutto from Italy), that can turn this dish into a borderless feast, where the nationalities of the ingredients all merge happily together in a savory, omelet-like dish that is then topped with special sauce, green laver and bonito flakes. Some popular ingredients include meats such as pork, beef, bacon; seafood such as shrimp, squid, octopus; vegetables like green onions, bean sprouts, mushrooms; dry ingredients like tenkasu (crunchy bits of deep-fried flour-dough), small dried shrimp (sakura ebi), dried kelp. And if you feel like enjoying a bit more carbs, how about adding some yakisoba, udon, or even mochi? You’re limited only by your imagination!
Let’s find out how this food has become a must-have on the menu of Japanese people’s favorite foods.

History of Okonomiyaki

Early in the 20th century, a new type of food appeared at mom-and-pop candy stores, (dagashiya) in the Kansai region, who sold mainly to children. This food consisted of wheat flour dissolved in water and thinly spread, crepe-like, on a hot griddle that was tucked away in a corner of the store. A filling of chopped green onion, bonito flake powder, tenkasu etc. were typical fillings, and when the crepe was cooked, it was folded over in half-moon shape and brushed with Worcestershire sauce. The combination of what was at the time the flavor that typified Western cooking (Worcestershire sauce) plus its relatively inexpensive price (one sen apiece, nowadays equal to about 100 yen) earned the snack the rather unflattering name of issenyoushoku (roughly equivalent to current day “one-dollar Western food”). Children were mesmerized by the aroma of the sauce that called to mind far-off western lands, as it sizzled deliciously on the griddle. Watching the snack being made right in front of them, then being able to eat it hot off the griddle added to the fun. In a flash, this crepe-like “fast-food” spread far and wide throughout Japan and is considered the prototype upon which modern-day okonomiyaki is based.

During the food shortage that followed the end of WWII, issenyoushoku, so popular among children, suddenly found itself getting a lot of attention. Adults, whom before the war, had never even considered a meal to be complete without rice, scorned the dish, and refused to accept what they considered a cheap snack for kids an alternative for a square meal. However, they were forced to recognize that this “snack” which was made with wheat flour (much more available than rice) and whatever else was on hand during this time of postwar deprivation, could be used to make a quick, tasty and filling meal.

But it was a group of pioneering restaurant owners, quickly opening restaurants and other casual eating establishments soon after the war ended, who, by adding pork (still considered dear at that time); changing the main vegetable to cabbage, (cheaper than green onions, whose availability and price varied depending on the season); using oil to grill and changing the name issenyoushoku to okonomiyaki, showed even the skeptics that a well-balanced meal could be made even without rice. And this was how the story of okonomiyaki began!

Enter Okonomiyaki Sauce!

As Japan entered the 1950s, okonomiyaki’s image changed 360 degrees from a cheap and filling snack food to a food that had overwhelming appeal to adults who hailed from all walks of life. Okonomiyaki restaurants soon were on practically every street corner. The development of a special sauce called okonomiyaki sauce to replace the Worcestershire sauce being used was a major step in furthering the okonomiyaki craze.

In 1952 in Hiroshima, a new, thicker sauce was created to solve the problem okonomiyaki shop owners faced regarding the thin Worcestershire sauce that ran down the sides of the okonomiyaki and evaporated after dripping onto the hot griddle. The new sauce, made from fruit and vegetable pulp and spice powder, went through numerous tests, and the result was a more viscous sauce that clung deliciously to the okonomiyaki without dripping onto the griddle. A few years later, in 1957, this sauce, named Otafuku Okonomiyaki Sauce, became available for home use, and it was from this point on that okonomiykai took root also as one of Japan’s beloved “home-cooked meals”, with each household making their own versions of the dish.

It was after the creation of okonomiyaki sauce that okonomiyaki started to evolve in new directions. The two main branches are called Kansai (or Osaka) style and Hiroshima style, with numerous variations within those categories. Kansai style typically has eggs, sliced cabbage and a variety of other ingredients all mixed into a batter made of flour and water or stock. Hiroshima style usually starts with a thin, crepe-like flour-based batter spread on the griddle, upon which is heaped cabbage or bean sprouts, and then fried eggs, yaki相終盤soba, etc. are layered on top. All across the nation we see unique versions of okonomiyaki, including different ingredients and different ways of grilling—if there is any rule that applies to okonomiyaki, it is that there is no rule that applies to okonomiyaki! Add whatever you like, cook it however you like. From a bucketful of chopped green onions to make “negi-yaki” version to high-end ingredients (fish roe or truffles, anyone?), it is this tolerant all-inclusiveness that makes okonomiyaki such a beloved dish.

Okonomiyaki—for over 60 years, it has been firmly established as one of Japan’s typical foods, beloved throughout the archipelago, and yet is still not as well known overseas as sushi, tempura, sukiyaki or even curry-rice. What would you say to helping spread the word by making some okonomiyaki for your friends and family tonight?