On the way out of Tensuke Express in Columbus I spotted it: A fluffy, plate-size pancake showered with curls of bonito and pickled ginger. It was an inch thick and creamy at the edges. It looked glorious. A diner in the booth by the door was just cutting into it.
When I had ordered one 45 minutes earlier, I was told they were sold out. I had driven two hours for one of those Japanese pancakes. I was robbed!
Tony tried logic on the way home. It takes a while to make the batter for okonomiyaki pancakes. The cooks must have been between batches when I was forced to settle for ramen. I wasn’t buying it. This was a plot to keep me from trying okonomiyaki, and it wouldn’t work.
At home I spent days researching the recipe. I discarded directions from food magazines, cookbooks and most internet sites, which treated the iconic Japanese street food as a big omelet. No, I wanted that creamy interior, and I knew eggs and cabbage alone wouldn’t do it.
The secret, I finally learned, is the Japanese mountain yam. On its own, the tuber is slimy and unappetizing. When mixed with eggs, flour and cabbage, it becomes creamy. I combined techniques from justonecookbook.com and proportions from seriouseats.com to produce a recipe.
First I had to find the yam. I struck out at Oriental Market in Cuyahoga Falls, but found it at Family Grocery, a Nepalese store, on North Main Street in the North Hill area of Akron. You will have to visit an Asian store — maybe more than one — to find this unusual yam. If you’re not willing, don’t make the recipe.
The Japanese mountain yam is dirty white and about 3 inches in diameter. It is commonly sold in Asian stores in sections hacked from the whole, which apparently is very long. I bought a 4-inch-long section and used about a third of it for the pancake recipe. Look for a whitish root-like vegetable and try to find the name of the item on the box, as I did. In Japan it is called “yamaimo” or “nagaimo.” You may have to ask.
Buy a flat-ish, Savoy-type head of cabbage while you’re there. Regular cabbage will work, but the flat kind is what you really want.
Don’t start making the pancake when you’re hungry. It takes some time to prep the ingredients and then the batter must rest at least 30 minutes to build the airiness. I chopped everything one day and made the pancake the next. Tony grated the yam into a little boxed gizmo grater he uses for wasabi. It was perfect for the yam, which turns into a puddle of goo when grated. Or just use the tiniest holes of a regular box grater set over a bowl.
Okonomiyaki may not be on your hit list right now, but I bet at some point you’re going to want one of these bad boys. They are very popular in Japan and, if you watch the Tokyo Olympics this summer, I bet you’ll see one. Then it’s just short hop to craving one. Thanks to this recipe, you’ll be prepared.
(Japanese savory pancake)
4 cups chopped cabbage (in 1/2- to 1-inch squares), packed
3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
4 oz. Japanese mountain yam (yamaimo or nagaimo), about a 2-inch-long piece
1/2 cup dashi or cold water
1/4 cup slivered pickled ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced, green and white parts separate
3 slices bacon, cut in half
Kewpie mayonnaise (available in Asian stores)
Okonomiyaki sauce (recipe follows)
Bonito shavings (optional)
Roll chopped cabbage in a clean dish towel to eliminate any moisture. Refrigerate until needed. In a large bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
Wearing latex gloves, peel the yam and grate into a small bowl using the smallest holes of a box grater (the yam causes a rash in some people). Stir the now-liquid yam and the dashi or water into the flour mixture, beating until creamy. Cover and refrigerate 30 to 60 minutes.
Beat the eggs, half of the pickled ginger and the white part of the onions into the batter. Stir in the cabbage a cup at a time, mixing very well.
Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium heat (I used cast iron). When hot, coat bottom of pan with about one-eighth inch oil. Spoon all of the batter into the hot skillet in a circle about 3/4-inch thick. The pancake won’t quite reach the sides of the skillet. Arrange the bacon on top. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, lowering heat if necessary to prevent the bottom from burning.
When the bottom of the pancake is dark brown, shake pan and loosen cake with a spatula. Slide it onto the lid, raw side up. Flip it into the skillet, raw side down. Cover and continue to cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the bottom is brown and the bacon is crisp.
Invert the pancake onto a platter. Streak the top liberally with Kewpie mayonnaise. Pour the Okonomiyaki sauce into a snack-size plastic bag. Snip a corner of the bag and decorate the top of the pancake with the sauce. Scatter remaining pickled ginger and the green part of the onions over all. Traditionally, bonito shavings are piled on top, too, but I skipped them. Cut into four wedges to serve. Serves two very liberally.
2 tbsp. ketchup
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1 tsp. honey
Combine in a small bowl and stir well.
I used two items from my overstocked pantry in this week’s recipe: oyster sauce and pickled ginger. But dang, now the bottle and jar are in my refrigerator so I guess that’s zero net gain.
When I return home from my two-month sojourn in Florida, I’ll resume the challenge. Meanwhile, you might want to try a recipe for sweet potato and red lentil soup from Noreen S., who also took up the challenge.
“I used the red lentils that have been sitting way too long in my cupboard. I found the recipe on allrecipes.com. I had a few tomatoes that were on their way out so I added those, too. It was very tasty and perfect for a dreary day,” Noreen wrote.
There are several recipes for lentil and sweet potato soup on allrecipes.com. I’ m going to try the Indian version.
What we cooked last week:
Tuna sashimi and vinegared rice (Tony made it); grilled open-face hamburger on Cuban bread with onions, sliced tomatoes and Kewpie mayo, grilled corn on the cob and Champagne.
What I ate in/from restaurants:
Grilled teriyaki chicken skewer, a fried chicken leg and a fortune cookie from Shang Hai in Statesville, N.C. (not great, but the parking lot was big enough for our camper); Egg McMuffin and coffee from McDonald’s; pulled pork sandwich somewhere in northern Florida; a Cuban sandwich, fried sweet plantains and cafe con leche from Wow Cuban Cafe in Hobe Sound, Fla.; fresh, hand-battered fried shrimp, a tossed salad and a Bud Light at Catfish House in Hobe Sound (great!); cheese arepa at the B&A Flea Market in Stuart, Fla.; Grilled grouper tacos and a Diet Coke at Harry and the Natives in Hobe Sound; a mushroom and cheese omelet and wheat toast at the Old Dixie Cafe in Hobe Sound.
From Sandy D.:
Those Bisquick pies make me think of my dear mom. She made them when they were popular back in, oh I guess, the 70s? Make no mistake though, she made killer pies from scratch. I still try to replicate her pie dough and can’t.
My sister still talks about the cheeseburger Bisquick pie I made for her when I was about 25 and she was 10. I experimented on the poor kid and only once found something she liked. Yes, it was the 1970s.
My girlfriend made that coconut pie for my husband about 30 years ago. He loves coconut. I just baked two of the pies — one for my husband and one for my neighbor. Thanks for the inspiration.
From Dorothy B.:
To clean the edges of cookbooks (mentioned in a previous newsletter), try wallpaper cleaner.
Brilliant idea. Thanks.