You know how sometimes you meet someone for the first time, and it's like you've known each other your whole lives? That's how it was for me and okonomiyaki. The first time I ate one was when a Japanese friend whipped one up to fill the hole in our bellies after an afternoon of day-drinking in the park. She tossed together chopped cabbage and vegetables with a couple of eggs and a packet of dry batter mix before frying it in a cheap aluminum nonstick skillet and sliding it out onto a plate, drizzling it with Japanese mayonnaise and a thick, brown sauce. Its flavors—sweet and savory, spicy from bits of ginger, smoky with the flavor of dashi—were instantly recognizable (as they would be to anyone who grew up eating casual Japanese food), while the texture, simultaneously crunchy and creamy, hit all of my comfort food sweet spots. No wonder they call this stuff Osaka soul food.
If I'd grown up in Japan, I would have known it all along, as I've found out over the course of the visits I've made in the last couple of decades. Okonomi means "how you want it," and an okonomiyaki is one of the world's most infinitely adaptable dishes. The shredded or chopped cabbage in the base is a given, but beyond that, you can add whatever you'd like to the batter. In Japan, restaurants that specialize in okonomiyaki will have menus with dozens upon dozens of mix-ins for you to choose from, ranging from chopped shrimp and pork belly to mochi, fresh corn, Chinese sausage, and even cheese (the Japanese have no compunction about modernizing classic dishes). You pick your ingredients and the waiter mixes up the batter, then hands it to you so you can cook it yourself on a wide steel teppan (griddle) installed on the tabletop, flipping it and eating it with specially designed miniature spatulas.
Once you have a few Japanese staples in your pantry (all of which have a shelf life of forever), making it at home is cheap, quick, easy, and filling. Best of all, it's great for using up leftovers.
For my basic okonomiyaki, I combine shredded cabbage and scallions with a big handful of shaved smoked bonito flakes (katsuobushi). Beni-shoga, the bright red pickled ginger flavored with shiso and mountain plums, is a common topping for the finished pancake, but I like to mix it straight into the batter for extra flavor.
There are dozens of recipe variations on okonomiyaki batter, including those that combine wheat and rice flour, some with baking powder for leavening, and the ever-handy boxed mix (don't bother, you don't need it). I keep mine simple, with straight-up all-purpose flour, a couple of eggs, and water. The ratio of liquid to flour, along with the mixing method, will determine the final texture of the okonomiyaki. With a lot of flour and minimal mixing, you get something similar to a traditional Western pancake: fluffy and somewhat dry inside. I like my okonomiyaki how I like my tortilla española—firm on the outside, but creamy and almost custard-like in the center—so I use a relatively small amount of flour (three-quarters of a cup of flour for two eggs). For the liquid, you can use plain water, but if you have some dashi (or Hondashi granules) lying around, they'll make your pancake extra savory.
The Japanese are really into ingredients with slippery, almost slimy textures, and yamaimo, Japanese mountain yam, is the King of Slick. Peel and cut open the long, thick root vegetable and, at first glance, it has the crunch and appearance of jicama. But rub it against a box grater (or throw it into a food processor) and it reveals its true texture. It's a dead ringer for Ghostbusters' ectoplasmic residue. The closest parallel you'll find in common Western ingredients is the interior of okra. Yamaimo is not completely necessary for okonomiyaki, but it does add to that custardy interior texture.
The final trick for getting the best texture out of your okonomiyaki is to mix it thoroughly. I beat my batter with a fork, using the same motion I'd use to beat the eggs for fluffy scrambled eggs or an omelette. As you whip it, the batter will incorporate air bubbles, turning light and frothy and making for a finished pancake that is creamy but not dense.
To fry the okonomiyaki, you can use a flat griddle like what's at restaurants, but my version is so loose and custardy that it's really much easier to do it in a nonstick skillet, which will help keep it from spreading out too thin. I start by layering sliced pork belly into the pan. Bacon will also work, but it tends to stick to the pan a lot more, making flipping the okonomiyaki more difficult down the line.
I layer the pork belly in while the pan is still cold, then spread the batter out on top of it. The batter weighs down the pork, preventing it from curling up and losing its shape as it cooks.
The key here is to use moderate heat and cover the okonomiyaki as it cooks, so that the top side begins to set while the bottom side crisps up. This takes about 10 minutes.
Flipping the okonomiyaki is the only slightly difficult step. You can try to flip it by hand, but you have more than a pound of soft, slimy, custardy stuff in that skillet, so I'd strongly recommend against it, unless you actually want to get slimed like in Ghostbusters. The easiest method I know is to pick up the covered pan with one hand and hold the handle firmly in place with the other, using a towel if you have sensitive fingers (it'll be hot). Working over a sink, flip the entire thing over so that the okonomiyaki deposits itself onto the lid, then carefully slide it right back into the pan.
The second side will take another 10 minutes of cooking. If you're a perfectionist and want an absolutely flawless flying-saucer shape in your pancake, you can finish it off by continuing to flip it over and over, using the lid method. This will help tuck the sides in and round them out.
But who am I kidding? We're smothering this guy with so much, then attacking it with our bare hands—we're never going to see those perfect edges anyway.
When I sent my mom a photo of an okonomiyaki I'd recently made, she commented that when she was a kid growing up in Japan, it was unheard of to put mayonnaise on them. These days, it's impossible to find one that isn't slathered in the stuff. And, of course, it's gotta be Kewpie mayo, the sweet and savory, MSG-laden mayonnaise that comes in a red-topped squeeze bottle.
The other indispensable condiment is okonomiyaki sauce, a thick, sweet, and vinegary brown sauce that is similar in flavor to Worcestershire sauce. (In fact, you can make a pretty good approximation of okonomiyaki sauce by combining equal parts Worcestershire sauce and ketchup with a few dashes of soy sauce.)
Some people call okonomiyaki "Japanese pizza," which is a terrible metaphor (or is it a simile? I can never remember). But, if we were to go with it, the okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise would be like the tomatoes and cheese—essential to its character. Taking the place of the Parmesan, red pepper flakes, and garlic? Ao-nori (green Japanese sea laver, similar to nori), pickled ginger, and sliced scallions (which I forgot to put on the okonomiyaki in this particular photo). Not completely essential, but so frequently used that they might as well be considered defaults.
Don't feel compelled to choose between utensils when eating an okonomiyaki. It's just as appropriate to eat it with a fork or a spoon as it is to eat it with chopsticks. If you happen to have a drawer full of miniature spatulas hanging around, those might be even better. The meaning of okonomi extends to all elements of the dish. It doesn't judge; its only job is to comfort and console.
The other thing okonomiyaki has in common with pizza is that it's almost as good the next day eaten cold out of the fridge as it is when it's freshly made. But maybe that's just the latent college kid in me talking.