Unfortunately for me, washoku is surprisingly non-vegetarian. If there's not an entire fish staring at you with one dead, pleading eye, there's chicken, pork, beef or a ton of fish stocks and powders hidden away inside the "vegetable salad". If anyone you know starts talking about how vegetarian-friendly Japanese food is, you can tell them that's a load of hooey. Pescatarians do alright, but people (like me) who don't eat any meat at all have a difficult time fitting traditional Japanese goodies into their lifestyles.
As you may have noticed, however, I have yet to starve to death, which means I must have found some way to survive amongst the chicken powders and fish eyes. With enough effort and a few sacrificed ingredients, many types of washoku can fit into a vegetarian lifestyle. In this blog series, The Wonderful World of Washoku, I'm going to talk about:
and Tofu (stay tuned for an actual visit to an actual Japanese tofu factory!)
This week, I'm going to talk about the glory that is okonomiyaki.
Okonomiyaki--"Fry What You Like": The Experience
Though I'm sure there are many different regional variations, there are two main types of okonomiyaki. The most common type is Osaka-style, which is what I'm going to feature in this blog post. The less-common variety is Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a dish centered around soba noodles and comprised of several different layers of toppings. Hiroshima-yaki is honest to God one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth, but to my eternal dismay you have to go all the way to Hiroshima to get your hands on some.
Last night, I went out to eat at the biggest okonomiyaki chain restaurant in Japan, Dotonbori. I prefer eating at smaller, independent places when I can, but chain restaurants have the benefit of a big menu that's standard and easy to use, as well as allergen info on all their dishes. Trying to negotiate vegetarian food out of a mom-and-pop place in Japan is frustrating on many, many levels. While there isn't a Dotonbori location in Kurobe, there is one in our neighboring town, Uozu--a mere twenty-minute drive away.
When you open the menu (which you can do here), you can either choose one of their suggested combos or you can build your own original pancake. For people with dietary restrictions, finding a "build your own" option on a menu is like striking gold. My choice? Cheese, corn and soba noodles. I used to toss in some kimchee too until I found out that most Japanese kimchee has fish in it. I was, as you can imagine, thrilled.
While a lot of Japanese food is pretty healthy, okonomiyaki is most certainly not. It's greasy, usually filled with meat and not-particularly exciting vegetables (I'm looking at you, cabbage) and covered in salty sauce and mayonnaise. It's delicious, but you wouldn't want to go out and get it all the time or they'd have to roll you in and out of the booth. Here's a photo of the final product:
That's the life of a vegetarian, my friend.
To those of you who are looking at this and saying 'That looks goddamn delicious!', I say:
You are goddamn correct.
Despite leaving off the traditional okonomiyaki sauce (a thick brown sauce kept in a pot at the end of the table and brushed onto each pancake post-fry but pre-mayonnaise), I still end up with a very tasty dinner. Each batch makes three or four pancakes depending on how small you decide to make them and how many ingredients you choose. Your table ends up looking a bit like a war zone by the time everyone has fried their way through everything, but by that point you're all in a heat-induced food-coma anyway, so it doesn't matter. If you're really adventurous you can check out the desert options like ice cream and actual pancakes topped with heaps of berries and whipped cream.
Okonomiyaki--"Fry What You Like": Make it at Home
- yama-imo powder (山芋) : a light, fluffy powder that helps bind the batter together and give it texture
- dashi (だし) : fish powder/broth to add flavor (I omit this when I make it.
- tenkasu (天かす）: small fried pellets that add salt and crunch
- aonori (青のり) : powdered seaweed to sprinkle on top of the finished product (I generally omit this too, but most recipes will call for it)
- okonomiyaki sauce: I think it's a bit similar to Worcestershire sauce, but since I've never tried it (and it's been a long time since I've had Worchestershire sauce, too) I can't say for sure
If you're serious about giving it a try, I'd save yourself some grief and get a packaged okonomiyaki mix (the Bisquick of the oko world) at your local Japanese grocery. As far as the hardware you're going to need, I usually use my electric hot-plate. It maintains a nice, steady temperature and it lets me cook in my living room while watching Star Trek. If you don't have something like that, you can use anything you would normally use to cook pancakes--a griddle if you have one, or a frying pan if you don't.
My own attempts at okonomiyaki have been rather too lackluster to be worth sharing, so I'm going to link you to someone else's recipe rather than give you my own. I might consider doing a recipe guide for Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, as I have made that before and it turned out pretty well, but I'll need to perfect my technique first.
Be sure to let me know if you decide to try your hand at okonomiyaki! It's fun, easy, and infinitely changeable. After all, it's right in the name--toss in whatever you want!