I can remember the days when I first heard about this thing called “sushi” from a friend and gathered up the strength to try some after considerable effort. In the 20 or so years since then, I’ve tried many other types of Japanese cuisine and grown to love nearly all of them (Natto is one of the few I haven’t). So when we traveled to Japan this August, I enjoyed the food immensely, trying many different places from fast food joints (Mosburger) to somewhat classy restaurants.
America, like any other country, has so many types of food that it’s hard to make a biased judgement, but I feel that overall Japanese food is much healthier (and often more tastier) than food in the U.S. There is less greasy food, more vegetables, smaller portions, and overall more variety. This even even true for some of the lower-end restaurants where you pay at a machine and get a ticket, which you hand to the kitchen through a window. I can pick up something like a Katsudon there (a rice bowl topped with eggs and fried pork) for only a few dollars that is super tasty and, in my somewhat subjective opinion, pretty darn healthy.
Of all the restaurants we visited in our 2015 trip to Japan, the Okonomiyaki place was one of my best experiences. We had just returned to our home base in Kamata, where our hotel was, and walked the streets near the train station for at least 20-30 minutes, looking for something good to eat. One of the things I really wanted to eat in Japan was Okonomiyaki, so when we finally came across a place that specialized in this we knew it was fate.
We entered the restaurant to discover it was a pretty small place, with handful of booths connected by narrow walkways. All were empty at that time, even though it was already sometime around 6pm. When an older man who looked like the owner came out of a similarly cramped kitchen area, we said something in Japanese to the order of “table for three”. He immediately responded with (also in Japanese) with the quick question “Are you Japanese?” after which he said ”言葉が通じないと困るから”, roughly translated as “Because it’s going to be a problem if you don’t understand me”. My wife responded that she was, and I also chimed in that I understood Japanese.
Not exactly the most friendly way to start a meal, but I understand his intentions because Okonomiyaki, written in Japanese as お好み焼き, literally means “grill as you like it”, involves the customer grilling their own food on a large hot plate. The plate is similar to a teppanyaki cooking area that you would see somewhere like Benihana in the U.S.
After we placed our order – two variations of Okonomiyaki, one order of Udon, and some drinks – he went back to the kitchen briefly and returned with two metal bowls containing the heart of Okonomiyaki, a pancake batter mixed with flour and many other ingredients (onions, shrimp, shredded cabbage, and other vegetables). He began to describe the process of cooking as he made the first pancake in front of us on the hot plate. This involved making the pancake a certain size, waiting 5 minutes and then flipping it and grilling it for another 5 minutes. He handed us a old-fashioned digital timer which he set at 5 minutes for us.
When he left we made the other pancake (the one with my wife’s ingredients) on the same plate, which was just big enough to fit both with a bit of space around. The man returned with a bowl of Udon, for my son, and requested we wait to cook it, or use one of the other tables nearby. We ignored his advice, and decided to cook it on the same plate. (After things were done and we started eating, he had seen the food and grumbled something about how we should of followed his instructions, but we had no problems with the desired cooking level).
After both flips, the pancakes were mostly cooked through and ready for the toppings, a fun and tasty step in the process. We used almost everything available at the table, including aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (dried fish flakes), mayonnaise, and a dark colored, sweet tare (sauce). These are all pretty typical for Okonomiyaki.
To serve the pancakes, we cut small portions out of each and transferred them to small plates before saying giving a cheery Itadakimasu, a way of giving thanks before meals in Japan. The pancakes were both great, though the Udon was sub-par.
We took a few pictures, but only after the owner made us promise to not post any pictures on online blogs. So unlike the other posts where I used pictures we took, I’ve only included a single picture from Wikipedia.
While the owner’s personality at this place was a bit strong, I think if you look around you can find larger establishments that cater more towards foreigners.
Next time you stop by Japan definitely plan a Okonomiyaki meal, I promise you’ll thank me for it. Or if you can’t wait, you can probably find most of the ingredients needed at a nearby Asian grocery store (including a basic pancake mix) to cook it yourself at home.