Tokyo is known internationally as a food capital, but most Japanese people know Osaka as “Japan’s Kitchen.” This is because Osaka has an amazing food scene, including Japanese street food faves like takoyaki. However, its most famous dish that everyone in Japan recognizes is the iconic Osaka original, okonomiyaki.
Let’s do a deep dive into this tasty and legendary treat and start our journey into Osaka’s iconic food scene!
What is Okonomiyaki?
Okonomiyaki is often called a “Japanese pancake” because of the batter it uses, but the more accurate nickname is “Japanese pizza.” The most basic okonomiyaki combines finely chopped cabbage with a pancake-like batter that is grilled and covered in a special okonomiyaki sauce, creating a savory treat. However, most okonomiyaki is anything but basic.
You’ll find plenty of tasty combinations of vegetables and meat both inside and as toppings. Think tasty ingredients like cheese, pork, beef, sausage, yam, kimchi, octopus, Japanese mayo, pickled ginger and more. That’s the great thing about okonomiyaki—you can really get whatever you want in it (within reason). In fact, it’s in the name.
The okonomi part of okonomiyaki means favorite. Meanwhile, ‘yaki’ usually means that something is grilled. This makes okonomiyaki a grilled collection of your favorite things. The metal grill that cooks okonomiyaki is a teppan, making it one of Osaka’s famous teppanyaki (food cooked on a teppan) category.
There are plenty of cool shops all over Japan that offer some very cool combinations, living up to the okonomi part of the name. Personally, I enjoy the spicy okonomiyaki some shops offer which includes kimchi, spicy sausage and jalapenos. We also love okonomiyaki over yakisoba, called modanyaki or modern-yaki.
How Okonomiyaki is Made
Okonomiyaki is simple in essence. A pancake-like batter is made usually with a combination of eggs, flour, soy sauce and water. Finely chopped vegetables, meat and other ingredients are added to the mix as well and stirred in thoroughly. Based on the shop, the eggs may be added with the other ingredients instead of into the batter directly.
This new ingredient-batter mix is poured onto the flat griddle, or teppan, until it’s cooked on one side. Then, based on the shop, you or the staff flip the okonomiyaki so it’s perfectly cooked on both sides. The flip is both the fun and hard part. If there are additional ingredients, like bacon or yakisoba, they are usually added just before the flip so that it cooks with the other side.
When both sides are cooked to your liking, you can add your favorite toppings, whether it be okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, katsuobushi, cheese or whatever you like. Just make sure to cut the okonomiyaki when it’s done, it makes it easier to eat than trying to pick off from the whole piece.
Kansai-style is also known as Osaka-style because of its origins. This is the most common style with the typical fillings. You won’t find any extra bells and whistles… besides what’s already in the okonomiyaki.
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is like okonomiyaki in layers. It has the same ingredients, but it’s made in a different way. Regular okonomiyaki combines almost all of the ingredients before cooking. However, Hiroshima okonomiyaki will have a layer of the batter cooked and then layers of cooked ingredients.
For example, you may have yakisoba on bottom, then a thinner layer of the cooked batter, and toppings layered on top of that. There may even be an extra layer or two of okonomiyaki. The okonomiyaki layers are also much thinner, kind of like a crepe.
Hiroshima-style actually has a history almost as long as the typical Kansai-style, so Hiroshima locals take plenty of pride in the dish. In fact, if you call it “Hiroshima-style” in front of the locals, you may insult them. So if you’re ever in Hiroshima, just call it ‘okonomiyaki.’
Monjayaki is a Tokyo-style offshoot of okonomiyaki. The ingredients are the same, but the ratio of wet ingredients as well as the cooking process are much different. The ingredients for monjayaki are cooked on the grill first. They are then moved into a ring shape and a wetter batter is poured into the middle. This creates a runnier version of okonomiyaki.
The look (and texture) of monjayaki tends to be a turn-off for a lot of non-Japanese people, but the taste is great for those who can get past the look.
The origin of okonomiyaki is actually not 100% clear. What we do know is that the first mention of okonomiyaki was made in the late 1930s. However, it may very well be older than that. We also know that this dish took off in popularity after World War II.
As we mentioned in some of our other blogs, Japan experienced food and rice shortages during and after the war. However, okonomiyaki was easy to make with the ingredients available at the time. Plus, it was filling, allowing people to stave off hunger for longer. This meant that people could afford to make or buy a hearty meal despite the shortages at the time.
According to the Osaka’s official travel guide site, Osaka Info, there are actually a few theories as to where okonomiyaki came from. So let’s quickly go through the most popular one.
The history of grilled pancakes dates back to Edo period (1683-1868). However, this initial version was mostly eaten at Buddhist ceremonies as a dessert called funoyaki. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), an even sweeter version called Sukesoyaki came about.
Sometime during the 20s and 30s, these pancakes began to change to something more savory as people experimented with more savory sauces from more Westernized dishes and adjusted the flavors to fit those sauces.
Thus, the okonomiyaki we know today was born.
And we are so happy to have okonomiyaki as it is today! Have you ever tried this Japanese pizza? How about trying to make it yourself? Let us know your favorite okonomiyaki toppings and ingredients in the comments!