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Okonomiyaki. It’s a mouthful. A delicious mouthful.
I’d never heard of okonomiyaki until I had it at a local Izakaya, a Japanese type of tapas bar. In fact, I didn’t know the Japanese even had tapas, but once I tried some of these delectable treats it made the average sushi joint seem a little wanting.
Okonomiyaki is popular street food in Japan. Some describe it as “Japanese pizza” but it’s more like a savory pancake filled with a variety of ingredients. Okonomi means “what you like” in Japanese and yaki means “grilled” or “cooked”. Okonomiyaki is largely associated with the Kansai and Hiroshima areas in Japan, but is popular throughout the country. The toppings and batters vary from region to region. In Osaka, Okonomiyaki are often made from a batter of flour, grated yam, and cabbage, and cooked on special hotplates called teppan. They are then topped with a sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and pickled ginger.
In Hiroshima, the ingredients are not mixed together but layered, consisting of items such as pork, squid and sometimes cheese. Noodles are also common, and topped with a fried egg. The amount of cabbage used in Hiroshima okonomiyaki is considerably larger than that used in Osaka.
It had been awhile since I had tasted this little pancake, and I was suddenly craving one like crazy. I decided that it was time to figure out how to make it myself; then I could have okonomiyaki anytime I wanted–and I wouldn’t have to share.
I immediately decided that I wouldn’t make them with cabbage, but with zucchini. I don’t always do well with cabbage, and after all, okonomi does mean “what you like”. I decided I liked zucchini.I was going to make them with a batter, and even had one mixed, when I decided to go with a similar method used by Heidi Swanson on her blog 101 Cookbooks and simply combined flour with the zucchini. I wanted my okonomiyaki to be mostly vegetables, without any dough-like flavor or texture. I grated the zucchini and squeezed out the excess water, added a couple of eggs, and some flour and panko breadcrumbs for binding. I also decided to add a lot of green onions (scallions) for what is often referred to as negiyaki, similar to Korean pah jeon or Chinese green onion pancakes. Finally, chopped shrimp was ultimately what gave these such depth of flavor. I don’t know if a Japanese person would consider my concoction truly okonomiyaki, but they did the trick for me.
Now that I have okonomiyaki figured out, I can tell you that they’re going to be a staple at my lunch table. Sprinkle them with bits of nori (Japanese seaweed) and don’t forget to drizzle them with mayonnaise, which makes the more delicious.
Okonomiyaki – Savory Japanese Pancakes
3 cups grated zucchini
3-4 green onions, chopped thin
1 cup chopped shrimp or prawns
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons nori (seaweed flakes)
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
2/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
chopped nori, green onion, and mayo for garnish
1) Grate the zucchini and squeeze out extra water by the handful. In a large bowl, combine it with the rest of the items until a dough-like consistency is reached.
2) Heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Scoop large spoonfulls of the mixture into the skillet and press down with a spatula until very thin. They should be as thin as possible without falling apart.
3) Cook for about 4 minutes on each side, until deeply golden brown and carefully slide onto a plate. Garnish with mayonnaise, nori and onions, and serve immediately.
For years, Korean food and I were strangers. I had never heard of bulgogi or japchae. Even kimchi, the side dish of pickled vegetables that Koreans eat with every meal, was as unknown and distant as Korea itself.
It’s not that Asian food was foreign to me. I’m from Vancouver, Canada, which boasts a large Asian popuation. Sushi bars can be found on every corner of the city, as are noodle shops, and a variety of Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Dim Sum dumplings and sticky rice are available in the freezer section of regular grocery stores like Safeway. Growing up, I even ate Chinese food at home. My parents were adventurous travelers and eaters. Shortly after my mother bought a wok and took a Chinese cooking class, our family was feasting on lemon chicken and shrimp fried rice as a weekend treat. Only Korean food remained a mystery.
There were maybe two or three Korean students at my high school and for a long time, the number of immigrants moving to my city from South Korea was low. However, this is changing. More and more Koreans can be found living in the suburbs, particularly in Coquitlam, which has “Koreatown”, an area in which Korean restaurants and businesses have proliferated in the last decade.
Several years ago, I began teaching English to foreign students. Although most of my students were from all over the world, the bulk of them came from Japan and Korea. As much as my students learned from me, I learned from them. I learned about their culture and traditions. I learned that no matter how differently we sometimes see the world, we’re all very much the same. But most importantly, I learned about their food.
The first time my students took me to a Korean restaurant I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I might not like the food. I had heard it was spicy. I don’t mind a little heat, but generally spicy food doesn’t agree with me. I ordered hae-mul pajeon, a type of savoury pancake, filled with scallions (we call them green onions here in Canada) and a variety of seafood. About the size of a large dinner plate, it was served to me on a sizzling pan of cast iron. It was big enough to feed three people. I wish I could tell you that I shared my pajeon that day, but I ended up gobbling down every last scrumptious morsel. Unlike a lot of Western pancakes, it had an impossibly light yet crispy texture.
I have eaten this seafood pajeon several times since then and have tried to recreate the pancake at home. My first attempts from bad Western recipe books resulted in duds–heavy discs that ended up in the garbage. With some experimenting, I have come up with a version that is not quite as good as the crispy pancakes served to me in Korean restaurants, but comes close.
Korean Style Seafood Pancakes (hae-mul pajeon)
Serves 4 as an appetizer (about 16 small pancakes)
In Korean restaurants the pajeon comes as one large pancake, cut into 6 or 8 pieces, like a pie. I often just makes the pancakes small, flapjack style, so they can easily be picked up and eaten in a few bites.
2 large eggs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup rice flour
3/4 cup sliced scallions (green onion)
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 cup cooked shrimp
1/2 cup cooked squid
1 tablespoon or more cooking oil, for frying
Beat the eggs, salt, sesame oil, and water together in a bowl. Add flours and beat until smooth.
Stir in scallions, red pepper, and seafood. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Heat oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Add about 3 tablespoons batter for each pancake. Cook on medium heat for several minutes until the edges appear dry. Turn over once, cooking until golden. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more cooking oil if necessary.
For dipping sauce: add 1 tablespoon of vinegar (I prefer apple cider) to 1/2 cup of soy sauce. Add 1 minced garlic clove and 1/2 chopped scallion. Toasted sesame seeds may also be added.