Okonomiyaki – I doubt I’d heard the word 10 or 12 years ago, but at some point this Japanese pancake made its spectacular entrance, bursting into our kitchen, our love for it totally sealed after we had kids. Throwing back to the good old ‘vegetable fritter days’, when our two children were babies and each went through that tricky stage of not wanting to be fed from a spoon, but not having the skills to spoon-feed themselves – carrot fritters and pumpkin quinoa fritters (and others; I made a list!) were the TOP way to eat vegetables and also be happy at the dinner table. Okonomiyaki, essentially a big cabbage fritter, with its bonus smothering of mayonnaise, brown sauce and seaweed, has always been the queen of all fritters, and the one I still make regularly, and it’s probably quite cagey of me that it’s taken this long to bring the recipe here.
Our youngest, who is 6, loves okonomiyaki the most. At the supermarket recently, we were walking through the vegetable section and he practically begged me to buy a cabbage. While I don’t like to bend to begging or nagging, I was inwardly smiling at the thought of him on the verge of a tantrum over wanting a cabbage that badly … I eventually ‘caved in’ and thought it was the best type of caving in I have ever done as a parent.
Okonomiyaki was already a regular habit by the time we went on a holiday to the land of okonomiyaki (and other ‘yaki’s, such as takoyaki: round fritters enclosing pieces of octopus with the same mayonnaise / brown sauce topping). We were pretty excited about having this pancake in its homeland, and discovering its variations (it can include seafood, pork, various vegetables, additional toppings). But unexpectedly, I realised I was too much of a lightweight; I couldn’t handle the real thing! Specifically I couldn’t handle the slathering of sweet brown sauce, mixed with the full-on Kewpie mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki tasted like fast food. After about three meals of it, I was sadly done.
So the land of okonomiyaki is really our kitchen, as smug as this sounds. Our mayonnaise is homemade, and I admit I do give myself a sore shoulder whisking it sometimes, and I’ve even split it a few times before, like a great big amateur … But it’s worth it. Homemade mayonnaise is the ticket to so many delicious, family-pleasing things, i.e. nori rolls. (I make mayonnaise with 2 egg yolks, rice bran oil, salt and lemon juice, or failing that, with rice vinegar.)
Okonomiyaki + homemade sauce
You can put other vegetables into this simple cabbage okonomiyaki if you like, i.e. grated carrot, finely sliced cauliflower, broccoli, beans, baby corn … But it’s this plain cabbage version we love most. Likewise, you can scatter your pancake with bonito flakes or slivers of pickled ginger, but this is what we like.
Dashi, used in the batter, is a flavoursome soup stock made of dried bonito fish and kombu kelp. You can buy instant granulated dashi in sachets, and there are even vegetarian versions (I like to check that the ingredients are natural and without MSG). While I think dashi gives the pancake extra oomph – and it’s also great to have dashi on hand for soups – you could just season the mixture with salt if you want to.
Since first publishing my okonomiyaki recipe in 2012 alongside a story for The Age’s ‘Epicure’, I’ve also started making the brown sauce. Yes, it’s a blend of various store-bought sauces, but compared to commercial okonomi sauce, it’s more natural, less sweet, and there’s no MSG. It takes about 2 minutes.
2 teaspoons dashi granules
225 g (1½ cups) plain flour
450 ml water
750 g cabbage, core removed, finely sliced
1 bunch spring onions (scallions), finely sliced
oil for frying
Homemade okonomi sauce
1½ tablespoons tomato sauce (ketchup)
1 tablespoon worchestershire sauce
½ tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
2 nori sheets
mayonnaise of choice
To make the pancake, combine the eggs and dashi in a large mixing bowl and whisk well. Add the flour and half the water and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining water. Stir in the cabbage and spring onions.
Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add a generous splash of oil, tilting the pan so it covers the base. Add a few large scoops of the cabbage mixture, making sure you get a good balance of cabbage and the batter from the bottom of the bowl, and spread out to a pancake 15–20 cm wide. Tuck in any loose pieces of cabbage around the sides, and even out the top. Cook for around 5 minutes, or until richly golden. Flip and cook the other side. Slide the pancake onto a plate and continue cooking another one. (To speed things up, you can have 2 pans going at once.)
While the pancakes are cooking, combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, mixing well. Tip into a small jug for serving if desired. Using scissors, cut the nori into strips over a bowl, then cut the strips crosswise into fine slivers.
Serve the pancakes hot. Spread with a generous dollop of mayonnaise and add a zigzag of okonomi sauce. Scatter with nori.
Makes 6–8 large pancakes