Exploring Japan’s Iconic Foods: Okonomiyaki

Japanese food is one of the most beloved and revered cuisines in the world. The use of high-end ingredients, delicate flavors, and artistic creativity in the presentation all contribute to my own personal obsession with it.

While sushi, noodles, and izakaya fare rank among my favorites, there is one particular dish that I have been known to dream about and find myself craving at times. This is okonomiyaki, or the Japanese pizza.

Have you not experienced the art of okonomiyaki?

Your life is not yet complete.

The name okonomiyaki is derived from two Japanese words – okonomi, “what you like” and yaki, “cooked or grilled”. It resembles a pancake or even an omelet, but many people call it a Japanese pizza due to all the toppings.

Traditional okonomiyaki places actually have you make your own, which can be quite a fun adventure in itself. It may not look as accurate as the menu pictures, but trust me, the taste is just as good.

Osaka Pan

Basically, you start off by choosing your favorite ingredients from the often enormous selection of meats, seafood, vegetables, spices, and noodles. Each table has a teppan style grill in the center where you will cook and assemble your okonomiyaki. Fortunately, many places have visual instructions on table placards, so not speaking Japanese won’t necessarily be a problem.

Osaka Okonomiyaki

Once your okonomiyaki finishes cooking, it is topped with a sauce and typically a few garnishes. Now, just cut your okonomiyaki into pieces and dig in with your chopsticks.

If you are just traveling within Tokyo and looking to try okonomiyaki, you may have more difficulty finding places that serve it. Your best bet is an izakaya, or Japanese style pub. If you venture down to Osaka or Hiroshima, you can’t miss finding a place as these two cities have okonomiyaki restaurants on nearly every corner in some spots. Both cities are regarded as the homes of okonomiyaki, however, Osaka is generally credited as its birthplace.

Hiroshima Okonomiyaki

With both Hiroshima and Osaka focusing on okonomiyaki, you will find there are regional differences with each version.

The Osaka variation of okonomiyaki is the more popular and the more widely found version. The Osaka style batter includes ingredients such as flour, yam, water, eggs, and shredded cabbage. Once you pick your desired additions, everything is basically mixed together with the batter and then cooked on the teppan. It is then topped with a sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce, bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise, and optional pickled ginger and seaweed flakes.

Osaka Okonomiyaki

In Hiroshima, the okonomiyaki is more layered versus being mixed all together. One noticeable difference at first glance is the heavy use of cabbage. Along with a significant amount of cabbage, noodles are more of a topping in a Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Here, you will also typically find the use of a fried egg on top and then a plentiful drizzle of sauce.

Hiroshima Okonomiyaki

To start with basic okonomiyaki terminology, one that is served with a layer of udon or yakisoba noodles is called “modern yaki” or modan-yaki. If it is thinner and served with green onions, it is referred to as negiyaki.
If this doesn’t seem confusing yet, learning how to differentiate your particular okonomiyaki even further might make your head spin a bit as there are different names based on the other ingredients ordered.

Rick LaPointe, who is a writer for the Japan Times, came up with a helpful list of terms that you can learn in advance to sharpen your skills for ordering okonomiyaki so you look like a pro right out of the gate! These are:

  • Ebi-ten: Plain okonomiyaki with shrimp (ebi) as main ingredient
  • Gyu-ten: Beef as the main okonomiyaki ingredient
  • Buta-ten: Pork as the main okonomiyaki ingredient
  • Ika-ten: Squid as the main ingredient
  • Yasai-ten: Vegetable as the main ingredient
  • Ebi-tama-yaki: A fried egg added to the regular ebi-ten. Add tama to any of the other variations above to include egg in the desired okonomiyaki.

Regardless of the style you choose, okonomiyaki is a dish you definitely want to experience during your Japan travels to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of Japanese cuisine. If you have the opportunity, be sure to sample both the Hiroshima and Osaka styles as they are almost seemingly a different dish entirely!

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