Three cheers for the Euro Cup and Okonomi-yaki

by convivialist

Euro Cup fever has hit. Berliners and, I am quite sure, nearly all Europeans will superglue themselves to televisions in bars, living rooms and on the streets for the next few weeks. Naturally, as a football-ignorant American, I am quite immune to all of this sports-viewing fervor. But I could not turn down the offer to watch the Italy/Spain game this weekend when it involved the enticing footnote of dinner prepared with a few Japanese friends, one of whom had just arrived from Tokyo with a bag full of authentic ingredients to prepare Okonomi-yaki.

Okonomi-yaki. The dish was new to me and when I asked what it tasted like, it was described as a Japanese pancake with vegetables and toppings. Ok, I thought, like a scallion pancake, that ubiquitous “pan-asian” choice on the menu at many not-so-authentic Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants. That was my (admittedly low) expectation. But less than an hour into the preparation process I realized how seriously I had underestimated what I was about to eat. Later when Satoshi, one of the Japanese friends present who is also completely fluent in English, told me that the literal translation of Okonomi-yaki is “whatever you like, put in”, the true nature of the dish began to reveal itself.

The thing that surprised me most about the process of making Okonomi-yaki was how much FUN it was. In Europe and the US, one has the image of Japanese food as…restrained. Beautiful and delicious, but unfailingly, perfectly executed. Particularly when eating in a nicer Japanese restaurant. Therefore I was surprised to have such an ecstatic feeling of freedom in the kitchen with Hina, Miki, Indy and Satoshi, these four high-spirited Japanese home-cooks.

If I give you a recipe, I think this dish would be impossible to replicate. Many of the tiny bags of flakes, flavors and fried bits that Hina brought with her in unmarked plastic satchels from Japan I would have no idea where to find in Berlin. On the other hand the great part is, with a few key ingredients, you can’t really go wrong. Because in the end, really, ‘whatever you like, put in”.

The start is pretty basic: make the batter, which in Japan is always with a base of a kind of potato flour that apparently does not exist elsewhere. Normal wheat flour, however, is a fine substitute. To this add one egg and slowly whisk in water as needed to make a batter with a consistency like a crepe batter– smooth and fairly liquid. The secret ingredient to add to the mixture is dashi, a sort of seasoning like salt or soy sauce that is actually extremely tiny balls made from dried fish or kelp. Chop a large head of white cabbage into small pieces and add it to the batter, which will thicken it considerably. This will be your pancake base. Now is where it gets more experimental and just plain fun.

Some classic versions of Okonomi-yaki include pork, cheese, mochi (little cubes of pounded, compressed rice) and fried udon noodles. We tried all of them, and in various combinations. The udon version I found particularly unruly to cook, but also the most delicious in the end. One must fry the udon noodles beforehand in a non-stick pan coated with a bit of vegetable oil. When they are cooking, add a pinch of sugar and some soy sauce until slightly browned.

Say you want to make udon pork Okonomi-yaki. Pour a bit of oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat, and once hot enough, scoop two large ladles of batter into the center. It will be about 8 in (20 cm) in diameter and 1 in (2.5 cm) thick. Place on top a few pieces of pork (already fried or, ideally, grilled), a scattering of scallions and some dried shrimp (can be purchased at any Asian supermarket), followed by the batch of fried udon. It will take some tricky maneuvering with the spatula to get everything to stay in a nicely shaped pancake form, but beauty is not exactly the point of this exercise. Flipping is the real challenge. In our case, when the tiny and adorable Miki managed to singlehandedly flip the pork-udon monster, more cheers rang out amongst the group than when Italy scored its only goal a few hours before.

Once nicely browned, slide the finished pancake onto a large plate and season/decorate it. Essential for taste and aesthetics are two sauces, one a Japanese mayonnaise (I don’t even want to know what’s in it) and the other a Japanese Okonomi-yaki brown sauce, which is slightly sweet and soy sauce-like, only thicker. Both you can purchase at an Asian supermarket, but they will be quite expensive compared to what they cost in Japan. The most beautiful way of putting the sauces on the pancake is squeezing them out in a lattice form (think Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, only more orderly). Once you have this as a base, sprinkle on some chopped scallions, little sticks of pickled ginger, dried fish flakes and agedama, which are basically the crispy bits of tempura leftovers. Nobody ever said Okonomi-yaki was good for you. Healthful or not, during the process I felt like a kid again, observing all seven of our group clustered around this pancake, throwing on colorful condiments, laughing and cheering the entire time.

It may sound like a lot, and it was. In the final result, though, all these flavors blended harmoniously together in umami perfection. Traditionally in a restaurant in Japan, one would get an entire pancake for himself or herself, similar to ordering a pizza in an Italian restaurant. Instead, we sat on pillows around a low table in Babeth and Emanuele’s living room and cut the Okonomi-yaki into pieces to share, along with green salad and German beer. If this tradition were to continue for the duration of the Euro Cup, I might just be convinced to watch a few more games…

*A note on UMAMI. On a theoretical level I get what umami is. That elusive taste – both distinct from but also a combination of – sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The one that every Western cuisine tries to achieve, but that the Japanese can manage so effortlessly. It was only during the preparation of this particular meal that I really comprehended how it is quite simply created. It is no big secret. From my own novice understanding the easiest way to produce umami is just taking what comes from the sea and naturally processing it: compressing, drying, fermenting, etc. That is why just a sprinkle of those tiny dried fish or kelp granules (dashi) helped to make the Okonomi-yaki complete and wholly satisfying. Not to say that you need to run around the kitchen adding dashi to every meal you prepare. But I think I might try it on occasion– in my scrambled eggs, for instance, or maybe in a vegetable soup. Any other suggestions?