By Sonya Sanford
(The Nosher via JTA) — The Japanese word okonomiyaki is derived from two words: okonomi “how you like it” and yaki “grill.” Okonomiyaki is a customizable Japanese savory vegetable pancake. Like a latke, it gets cooked in oil in a fritter formation. Unlike a latke, it’s usually made into a large plate-sized pancake comprising mainly cabbage.
Food historians have linked the rise in popularity of okonomiyaki in Japan to World War II, when rice was more scarce and this recipe offered a filling meal or snack with a wheat-based starch. Throughout Japan there are regional differences and countless variations of okonomiyaki, but the most common form of the dish involves a batter made of flour, a variety of mountain yam, eggs, shredded cabbage, green onion, dashi and often the addition of pork belly. It gets topped with its own tangy sweet sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and bonito flakes (katsuobushi).
I first fell in love with okonomiyaki on a trip to Japan. You can find it there in restaurants that specialize in the dish, but it’s also something that is prepared in home kitchens. The cabbage gets slightly crisp, tender and sweet when seared in oil on a flattop or skillet, and then it gets generously slathered with an umami-rich sauce, along with a welcome drizzle of creamy mayo. The richness, sweetness and tanginess of these components all work perfectly together.
A few months after I returned from Japan, I ended up eating at Brooklyn’s Japanese Jewish restaurant, Shalom Japan. I didn’t hesitate to order its Jewish-influenced spin on okonomiyaki. Shalom Japan is known to top the dish with pastrami, or even corned lamb tongue and sauerkraut. It became clear there that okonomiyaki, with its base of humble cabbage and onion, is a perfect fit on a Jewish table. The fried pancake part of it all called out Hanukkah.
I am a fan of all pancakes and fritters, and I set out to modify the classic Japanese version for a recipe that didn’t require access to a specialty food store and could be made with kosher ingredients.
Full disclosure: My version lacks authenticity. If you’re going for the real deal, you’ll need a batter made with an okonomiyaki flour mix or nagaimo yam. This special kind of yam is added in powdered form to the flour mix or is grated fresh into the batter. The toppings should include bonito flakes, and the batter should be made with dashi. These ingredients can be found at most Japanese markets. Instead of nagaimo yam, my version uses a batter of flour and potato starch, and instead of dashi I use water.
I’ve also included a recipe for homemade traditional okonomiyaki sauce that can be made simply with easy-to-find ingredients, but you can also buy a pre-made bottled sauce. You can make these pancakes large-sized and cut into wedges like the Japanese do, or slightly smaller a la a large latke. I wouldn’t go too small, as the vegetables tend to hold together better en masse.
This recipe doesn’t need to be too exact, and it works as a blank canvas for additional vegetables like kale, mushrooms and/or daikon. In the spirit of Hanukkah, these okonomiyaki get cooked in oil, but they are not heavily fried. The oil used to fry the okonomiyaki gives a loving nod to the miracle of the oil glowing in the Temple for eight days instead of one, but the heap of vegetables and addictive sauce make this a nutritious and satisfying addition to any Hanukkah meal.
For the pancakes:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour or gluten free all-purpose mix
1/4 cup potato starch or cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
1/2 to 3/4 cup water
1/2 shredded green cabbage, about 4 1/2 packed cups
3 green onions, sliced thin, plus more for garnish if desired
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
4-5 inches daikon, peeled and shredded (optional)
Oil as needed (i.e. sunflower, canola or peanut)
Sesame seeds, for topping (optional)
Mayonnaise, for topping (optional)
For the okonomiyaki sauce:
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey or agave syrup, or to taste
1. Start by making the batter. Whisk together the flour, starch, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
2. In a separate bowl beat the eggs. Add the eggs and 1/2 cup of water to the flour mixture. Whisk until smooth. You want a fairly thin, crepe batter-like consistency. If you find it too thick, add another 1/4 cup of water. Try not to over-mix; you do not want to overdevelop the gluten. Allow the batter to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.
3. While the batter is resting, prepare the vegetables. Remove the thick core from the cabbage half, then cut the halved cabbage in two. Thinly slice or shred the cabbage. Thinly slice the green onions. Grate the carrot and daikon if using.
4. Make the okonomiyaki sauce: Combine the ketchup, Worcestershire, soy sauce and honey/agave in a bowl. Taste and adjust to your liking. The sauce should be tangy, savory and a little sweet.
5. Combine the batter with the vegetable mixture.
6. Heat a cast-iron skillet or a nonstick skillet with about 3 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Once the oil is glistening and hot, lower the heat to medium low and add some of the cabbage mixture to the pan, gently nudging it into a circle shape. I like to make each pancake with about 2 cups of the mixture. For me, that makes an ideal-sized pancake that isn’t too hard to flip and one that will hold together. Cover the skillet with a lid for 3-4 minutes. Carefully flip over the pancake, and cover it with a lid for an additional 3-4 minutes, or until browned on both sides and cooked through. Make sure not to cook on too high of a heat or the pancake might burn on the outside while remaining raw in the center.
7. Serve hot topped with a generous spread of the okonomiyaki sauce, mayo if desired, sliced green onions and sesame seeds.
8. Slice and serve!
(Sonya Sanford is a chef, food stylist and writer based out of Los Angeles who specializes in modern Jewish cooking. Follow Sanford at www.sonyasanford.com or on Instagram @sonyamichellesanford.)
The Nosher food blog offers a dazzling array of new and classic Jewish recipes and food news, from Europe to Yemen, from challah to shakshuka and beyond. Check it out at www.TheNosher.com.