of all the yakis in the world…

…okonomiyaki just might be my fave.

When you think of Japanese food, you might think of meticulously crafted sushi or an elaborate kaiseki dinner, a multi-course parade of curated delights. These formal foods are often associated with dramatic images of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and Zen gardens. I suppose they are not the worst stereotypes a country could have.

Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan, 1985

And you may also know that there are some slightly more colorful and decidedly less formal activities going on there as well. I’m not talking about pachinko or sumo or even the creepy school-girl-uniform-obsession thing. I mean those normal casual moments, often centered around food and drink, that we don’t always get to experience as tourists or business travelers. And while they are still uniquely Japanese, after-hours, street and festival foods offer some balance in a stressful and serious culture. And this culture is often mischaracterized as one of total and relentless stoic restraint.

I spent some time in Japan in the 80s and 90s – first as an exchange student, then a language instructor with the Ministry of Education and finally a college admissions rep. For me, okonomiyaki was always a perfect foil for that obvious tension. After a day of teaching English in Kashihara High School under immense scrutiny, I remember wandering into to a crowded, jovial scene and boisterous cries of irrashai or “come on in!” Okonimiyaki was on the menu and it was like a being in different country.

Okonomiyaki is a type of teppanyaki, a post-war style of Japanese cooking that is prepared on an iron griddle. It is a large, savory pancake with a choice of fillings and basically translates to “whatever fried things you like.” Wheat and yam batter with cabbage is the starter and add-ins are items you already have on hand: meats, vegetables, noodles or seafood, my personal favorite. Okonomi sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise are the signature toppers, meaning a trip to an Asian market is in your future. And mountain yam is not exactly a staple there either, so I fully endorse packaged okonomiyaki flour in this post.

Shrimp and Enoki Okonomiyaki

Ingredients (four 7-8” pancakes)

  • 1 cup okonomiyaki flour mix
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup water
  • 5 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
  • 4 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 package of enoki mushrooms
  • 8 oz. cooked baby cocktail shrimp
  • 1/2 cup tenkasu (tempura flakes)
  • 1-2 Tbs oil for frying
  • Okonomi sauce (see below)
  • Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise
  • Bonito flakes
  • Pickled red ginger (not sushi ginger)
  • Aonori (seaweed flakes)


In a large bowl, mix the first 3 ingredients to create the base batter.

Add the chopped cabbage, scallions, tenkasu and shrimp. Separate the mushrooms, trim to 1” pieces and add to the batter. Mix thoroughly, making sure everything is wet and blended.

Heat a 7-8” non-stick pan to medium and add 2 tsp oil. When hot, ladle 1/4 of the batter and press lightly to distribute around the entire pan.

Cook for 3-5 minutes until set and just beginning to lightly brown. Flip, cook 3-5 minutes. Flip again and finish for another 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate and keep warm in 300 degree oven. Repeat for 3 additional pancakes.

To serve, drizzle alternating stripes of Kewpie and Okonomi sauce across the top of the pancake. Top with 1 tsp. red ginger, a pinch of bonito flakes, a few green onions and a sprinkle anori seaweed powder, which I could not find so I used furikake.

Pairs beautifully with Japanese beer or you can class it up with some warm sake.

Okonomi sauce: 4 Tbs ketchup, 3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce, 2 Tbs oyster sauce, 1 Tbs sugar.

Ps. I feel like I should get a little credit for waiting this long before featuring a David Bowie song.

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