Cook What You Like, As You Like It
Okonomi-yaki literally means "cook as you please" or "cook what you like," and the restaurants which serve this dish are a fun place to have a meal, some drinks, and conversation. Some okonomi-yaki shops have one big counter skillet where everything is cooked by the staff. They frequently have some seats at the griddle and also tables around the rest of the room. But most okonomi-yaki shops have individual skillets at each table so that you can cook and season the food yourself---the cooking, after all, is part of the fun. (But the large number of cooking surfaces can lead to you taking home an "aroma souvenir," so to speak, and your clothes smelling like oil.) The remainder of the post describes my visit to an okonoymi-yaki restaurant in a city to the west southwest of Tokyo. I have not seen such restaurants in my travels in the United States, but recall reading about a place somewhere in Los Angeles County.
Pancakes and Noodles
Okonomi-yaki restaurants specialize in pancakes and noodles. The pancakes are mixtures of various varieties of vegetables, meat, seafood, egg, flour and other seasonings. Somehow they acquired the nickname "Japanese pizza," but the only real similarities are that both are round and flat, and both are relatively inexpensive. The noodles are a mixture of various vegetables, seafood and meat, and are usually called yaki-soba. Sometimes the noodles are layered with the pancake batter to make amazing combinations (see Joyful Hiroshima's diagram, for example).
Once you are seated, the server shows you the menu and turns on the griddle at your area. When you are ready, you order a few items. Soon after you order, the ingredients for a pancake will be brought to you in a bowl, unmixed. You mix it up, put it on the griddle, add some seasoning as you go---powdered seaweed and "special sauce" are popular---and cook until it is done. Before the pancake is cut into wedges for serving, it gets another topping of the "special sauce" and some mayonnaise. The end result is bold and salty, with a variety of textures, and interesting morsels of flavor waiting to be discovered as you eat.
One of the nearly vegetarian versions that was on the menu contained cabbage, mochi (rice paste), pickled ginger, green onion, an egg, a premixed dough paste, and konnyaku (a yam-based noodle-like substance, the grey stuff on the right side of the bowl). Although the menu implied that this particular okonomi-yaki was all vegetable, the ring-shaped objects in the bottom part of the photo above are some kind of seafood, and we removed those before mixing it up. The pickled ginger was nicely dispersed through the pancake, and the mochi offered me a surprise as I learned what happens when mochi is heated: it softens and gains elasticity, providing a challenge to the diner.
Okonomi-yaki pancakes exist in countless varieties, including what one of my hosts called a "Tokyo-style okonomi-yaki." This regional specialty involved a drawn-out process of arranging the dry ingredients into a ring, pouring in the liquid that remained in the bowl, stirring it around, and so on, until it became a messy, gooey pancake that my hosts had trouble pulling off pieces to eat.
The Dangerous Life of an Accessory
Being an accessory in an okonomi-yaki restaurant can be a tough life, as the instruction manual and timer pictured below illustrates. But for a diner, it is an enjoyable way to have a casual and leisurely meal with enough variety to make almost anyone happy.