Okonomiyaki - the Japanese vegetable pancake

click to enlarge Okonomiyaki - the Japanese vegetable pancake
Credit- Ann Shaffer Glatz
Okonomiyaki- Abstract Expressionism on a plate

Tonight's shift in the restaurant is over. I clocked in over 10 hours today and I've only been able to get off my feet for my half-hour family meal break. I'm very tired and my back and feet hurt. Even though I still have three more shifts ahead of me before my next day off, I know that I'll be too wound up to fall asleep unless I decompress. Most nights I am awake past 1 a.m.

On my short walk home, I pass Xiao Bao, a very stylish Asian restaurant and lounge that's open late. It's only been open a few months and has gotten rave reviews. I take a seat at the bar, order a cocktail and peruse the food menu. I've learned that having food in your stomach helps slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and helps avoid a hangover. I ask the bartender: "What's good here?" She responds: "My favorite is the okonomiyaki. It's a Japanese hash-brown pancake that the owners learned to make while on their honeymoon in Japan."

Xiao Bao is the love child of Josh Walker and Duolin Li. After quitting their jobs in New York City, they embarked on a seven-month honeymoon throughout Asia, where they worked on a rice farm outside Osaka and learned Japanese cooking techniques. After returning to the United States, the couple settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where they started a series of pan-Asian pop-ups before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2011. After opening a second location in Charleston, they expanded to an East Nashville location, where I am now sipping my cocktail and unwinding from my restaurant shift.

The plate placed in front of me is an explosion of color and reminds me of Jackson Pollack's famous painting Convergence. It looks like a cross between a pancake and a frittata, garnished with a lattice of mayonnaise and sweet soy sauce drizzles, and topped with a dusting of seaweed powder and dried, smoked, fermented tuna flakes which are wiggling as if alive. I cut into it and find shredded cabbage, kale, carrot and scallion that have been mixed into the batter and fried to a hash brown texture. I take a bite and taste something that is sweet, spicy, smoky, and savory. I am hooked!

Okonomiyaki are made with a wheat flour batter and cooked on a griddle or teppan. They first appeared in Osaka during the 1930s and increased in popularity during World War II when rice became harder to come by. The name is derived from okonomi which translates to "how you want it," and yaki, meaning "cooked over direct heat."

Restaurants specializing in okonomiyaki will have menus with several options to choose from, much like an American pizzeria. Common add-ins include octopus, shrimp, pork belly, Chinese sausage, yam or kimchi. You pick your ingredients which are then mixed together in a batter. The batter is then poured onto a hot griddle known as a teppan and shaped into a circle with short metal spatulas. Once one side of the okonomiyaki has been cooked enough to hold together, it is flipped onto the other side. When both sides of the okonomiyaki are cooked, the toppings are added. Okonomiyaki sauce, which resembles Worcestershire sauce, and Kewpie mayonnaise are drizzled all over in zigzagging lines. Small flakes of dried seaweed are then sprinkled over. Often paper-thin shavings of katsuobushi are added, which because of the heat, move and dance as if alive. The okonomiyaki is then divided into quarters and left on the griddle so that every bite is eaten "fresh off the grill."

Making your own okonomiyaki in a home kitchen is relatively easy. It is essentially a vegetable fritter in the form of a pancake. It is a very adaptable recipe and is a good way to put to use the leftover vegetables that are hanging out in your fridge's produce drawers. If you have any pickled sushi ginger, add it in. Fry up a couple pieces of diced bacon to mix into the batter. If your batter seems too runny, you can add a little panko. If you have any microgreens or sprouts, put them on top. The only tricky part is flipping it over. But don't stress. If it comes apart, just piece it back together, and cover your mishap with the toppings.

Okonomiyaki (Japanese vegetable pancake)

Serves 1-2, depending on hunger


½ small cabbage, very thinly sliced (preferably using a mandoline), about 4 packed cups – 300 grams

1 medium carrot, peeled into thin ribbons using a vegetable peeler, and cut into matchsticks

2 Lacinato kale leaves – ribs removed and discarded; leaves stacked, rolled into a cylinder, and thinly sliced crosswise

2 scallions, very thinly sliced on a bias

1 large egg, lightly beaten

3/4 cup cold water, more if needed

1 cup all-purpose flour, more if needed

1 tablespoon canola oil

Garnishes (see note below):

Bull-Dog sauce, for serving

Kewpie mayonnaise

Furikake seasoning

Katsuobushi flakes (optional)

Note: Look for Bull-Dog sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise, furikake, and katsuobushi flakes

in the Asian section of your grocery store, at an Asian market, or Amazon. If you can't find Bull-Dog, mix equal parts ketchup and Worcestershire sauce with a few dashes of soy sauce. Kewpie mayonnaise is a Japanese sweet mayonnaise sold in a red-capped squeeze bottle. You can substitute Hellmann's. Furikake is a Japanese condiment containing dried seaweed. You can substitute finely shredded nori.


In a large bowl, add the cabbage, carrots, kale and scallions. Stir in the egg and water. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine using chopsticks, if you have them. Depending on the water content of your shredded vegetables, you may need to add more water or flour to achieve a thick batter. The batter will be more like a potato pancake or hashbrown.

Heat the canola oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet until shimmering. Add the okonomiyaki batter, and using the back of a metal spoon, spread the thick batter into a circle about ½- to ¾-inch thick, smoothing the top and gently pressing the pancake together. Cook until the edges of the pancake begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Once the edges brown, wait for 30 seconds before flipping the pancake over. Cover the skillet with a flat lid or dinner plate, and with a towel or pot holder, hold the lid firmly against the skillet and flip over, then carefully slide back into the pan.

Cook the other side until the edges brown, 3 to 5 minutes, then cook an extra 30 seconds before sliding the pancake onto a plate.

Drizzle with Bull-Dog sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise and sprinkle with furikake and some katsuobushi flakes, if using. Serve warm.

About The Author

Peter Glatz

After the passing of his wife, Julianne (former Illinois Times food columnist), Peter Glatz decided to retire from a 40-year career as a dentist to reinvent himself as a chef at the age of 66. In his short culinary career, he has worked at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant, Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch...

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