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Japanese fast food - Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki in Osaka

Discover the greatest fast food you may never have even heard of with Japanese food expert Michael Booth

It is perhaps the greatest fast food you may never have heard of: Okonomiyaki. Is this perhaps because people tend to tie themselves in knots trying to describe what okonomiyaki actually is, often calling it ‘Japanese pizza’ or ‘Osakan omelette’? Well, I am here to tell you right now that this ain’t no pizza. It’s way better than that, which is why the world is, ever so slowly, starting to wake up to this deeply satisfying, savoury dish and okonomiyaki (meaning ‘Made as you like it’) restaurants are now starting to open in major cities in the West.

There are, I’ll admit, some similarities between okonomiyaki and Spanish omelette, at least if we are talking about Osakan okonomiyaki. (Many claim that okonomiyaki was invented in Japan’s third city, so it has as good a claim as any to being the definitive version).

The ingredients of Osakan okonomiyaki include shredded cabbage, green onion, usually pork, and sometimes seafood, such as shrimp or squid, are all mixed together with a batter made of flour, dashi, eggs and, crucially, grated yam (for chewy moistness). This is then poured out onto a hot-plate, or ‘teppan’, where it is fried, flipped, fried some more, slathered with a thick, dark, tangy-sweet sauce and sprinkled with various toppings, including kimchi, nori, Japanese mayonnaise and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), before being sliced with a metal spatula and devoured.

Okonomiyaki is one of Japan’s most sociable dishes. Often, groups of friends will sit around their own teppan table and make their own okonomiyaki, sharing slices (it’s the classic Japanese date food).

As always with Japanese dishes, there are several regional variations on the okonomiyaki theme. In Osaka, head down to Dotombori the spiritual home of okonomiyaki, a buzzing, enjoyably tacky food street with several specialist restaurants serving them with a dazzling range of toppings.

In Tokyo, they do things a little differently. Down on Monja Street in Tsukishima, you can try the special runnier version of okonomiyaki, ‘monjayaki’, while in Hiroshima, rather than mixing all the ingredients up before cooking, they prefer to layer them - batter first, then cabbage, then pork and the rest of the ingredients including, if you are lucky, a top layer featuring some of the delicious, plump Hiroshima oysters.

Other variations include ‘modanyaki’, which feature a gut-busting portion of either udon or fried ramen noodles in the mix, or the rarer Okinawan-style okonomiyaki, hirayachi, which you might be offered if you are lucky enough to be invited to a private home on the southern islands. 

Though its advocates will point to its relatively healthy ingredients - it’s not unusual for an okonomiyaki to be 50% cabbage - this is not what you call diet food. Though you can make okonomiyaki at home, or even buy frozen ones from the supermarket (if you have ever wondered what a hockey puck tastes like, this is your chance to find out), most Japanese prefer to keep it for a special, self-indulgent treat or, of course, a holiday.