What is Okonomiyaki?
A soul food that represents Osaka
Okonomiyaki is a food prepared by placing ingredients on top of wheat flour dough, which is then cooked on a teppan (metal plate). Although it is sold throughout Japan at relatively low prices, the ones that are particularly famous are those sold in the Kansai region, particularly Osaka.
Okonomiyaki literally means “cooking what you like”. However, it is not a dish prepared by simply cooking the ingredients you like. One has to mix cabbage cut into fine strips with flour dough diluted with water. It is then cooked in a circular shape about 20 cm in diameter on a teppan. It is then eaten by using a special okonomiyaki sauce, which has a slightly sweet flavor. Popular ingredients that are used in okonomiyaki are meat, such as pork, and seafood such as squid and shrimp. Okonomiyaki made with pork is referred to as buta-tama (or tontama; meaning pork and eggs), a moniker used throughout Japan.
Special okonomiyaki restaurants exist in almost all administrative districts in Japan. In addition, okonomiyaki is also served in some teppan-yaki specialty stores. Conversely, it is rare that okonomiyaki is served in regular restaurants. Okonomiyaki restaurants can be stores that are operated as independent restaurants or as restaurants where their main store is located in Osaka or Hiroshima, with several sister stores located in major cities. There are also large-scale chain restaurants that have their stores throughout Japan. As such, the sizes of such restaurants can vary. Botejyu and Chibo are the two most famous large-scale chain restaurants, and have shops overseas in such places as Hawaii, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Famous types of okonomiyaki are Kansai-style okonomiyaki and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. These types have different food preparation methods (refer to the “Regional differences” section). Generally, when we say “okonomiyaki,” we often mean the former. Furthermore, there are regions in Japan that have a well-established local dish that is similar to okonomiyaki. Some of these regional dishes will be described below.
Types of Okonomiyaki
1. Kansai-style okonomiyaki
This is the most common okonomiyaki, and in many cases uses meat and seafood as ingredients. Some restaurants use mochi, cheese and cow line meat. There are many restaurants that provide all these types in one dish called a “mix yaki”. There are also cases where okonomiyaki that incorporate the local specialty as an ingredient are made as part of local projects to promote the town (refer to the “Regional differences” for details).
2. Modan yaki
A dish that mixes yakisoba in when cooking okonomiyaki. It is more filling than a normal okonomiyaki.
3. Negi yaki
An okonomiyaki dish where green spring onion is cut into 5mm pieces and spread to completely cover the whole surface before cooking.
4. Suji yaki
Suji yaki refers to okonomiyaki made with cow line meat and konnyaku. It is a menu item frequently seen in okonomiyaki restaurants in the Kansai region. There are cases where cow line meat stewed in soy sauce and sugar is used.
How to eat okonomiyaki
One thing that you should first pay attention to when eating okonomiyaki is how to choose the restaurant. Okonomiyaki restaurants can be separated into the two categories. The first includes restaurants where the dough is provided and the customer cooks on a teppan. The second includes those that cook the okonomiyaki for you. Those who would like to cook themselves should pick the former and those who are not confident in cooking by themselves should choose the latter. If you want to make sure, you can always ask “will the restaurant staff member cook the okonomiyaki or will I have to cook it myself?” when entering a restaurant.
When you enter a restaurant, you’ll be shown to a counter seat or a table seat. In most cases, they both will have a teppan installed into the table, on which cooked okonomiyaki is placed (there are restaurants where the okonomiyaki is cooked in front of the customer. This okonomiyaki is eaten with special okonomiyaki sauce, katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings), aonori (green laver powder), and mayonnaise to one’s liking. When putting the mayonnaise on, mixing the sauce and the mayonnaise on top of okonomiyaki will make the sauce even richer and more delicious. Katsuobushi and aonori are usually sprinkled on top after spreading the sauce.
When the above preparation is complete, the okonomiyaki is then eaten by cutting it with a steel spatula called a “kote”. Although there is no specific method for cutting the okonomiyaki, you can cut it as you would a cake or a pizza. In most cases, people eat okonomiyaki cut on the teppan using chopsticks. However, there are those among okonomiyaki aficionados that use a kote to scoop the okonomiyaki up and then bring it directly to their mouth.
As a side note, sauces used on okonomiyaki are made sweeter than the common Worcestershire sauce. Either an original sauce from the restaurant is used or a sauce sold by a manufacturer is used. Concerning the latter, Otafuku (moon-faced woman) Sauce sold by a company named Otafuku is famous.
The food of the common people that has spread as a snack and as a light meal
Although the origins are not clear, okonomiyaki has been sold from pushcart vendors with the name yoshoku (western food)-yaki before World War II. After the war, a food called “issen-yoshoku” (one-cent western food) became popular among hungry children. At the time, issen-yoshoku was provided at sweet shops, and therefore had been acknowledged as a snack by society. Thereafter, this issen-yoshoku was cooked with pork placed on top in amusement districts, with its name changed from issen-yoshoku to okonomiyaki, being arranged to pass as a grownup’s meal. This is how the history of the current okonomiyaki began.
In the 1950s, okonomiyaki restaurants started popping up throughout the Kansai region. Okonomiyaki was a food for common people, and many okonomiyaki restaurants began to open with there being one in every town. Since there were many okonomiyaki restaurants at the time, there was no custom of making it at home. Thus, takeaway proliferated, with people often buying okonomiyaki at a store and taking it home. Afterward, when eating out became common, an opportunity for people to go out to a restaurant and eat it increased. Thereafter, okonomiyaki spread throughout Japan.
The following are only a fraction of the variations of okonomiyaki found in different regions of Japan.
1. Osaka-style (Kansai-style) okonomiyaki (Osaka/Kansai area)
Osaka’s okonomiyaki is the most common okonomiyaki in Japan. When one refers to “okonomiyaki”, they generally refer to Osaka-style okonomiyaki. It is also referred to as Kansai-style okonomiyaki at times. Okonomiyaki is the most commonly eaten food in Osaka. Most households in Osaka have a teppan for cooking, and there are many occasions where it is eaten at home. Furthermore, there are many specialty restaurants, which serve dishes such as “Okonomiyaki lunch sets” where okonomiyaki is eaten with rice. This is also unique to Osaka.
2. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (Hiroshima prefecture)
Okonomiyaki from Hiroshima is called “Hiroshima-yaki” or “Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki” and is prepared differently to Osaka-style okonomiyaki. Although the typical recipe involves mixing thinly cut strips of cabbage and dough, Hiroshima-okonomiyaki does not involve mixing cabbage with the dough. Firstly, only the dough is placed thinly on a teppan. Then thinly cut cabbage strips are placed on top of the dough in a heap. A second layer of dough is then poured over the cabbage and then grilled with the cabbage sandwiched between the two layers of dough. Enclosing a large amount of cabbage within the dough skillfully is also fun to watch. It is a popular Hiroshima dish where it is eaten with yakisoba and mildly fried eggs that have been cooked separately. Currently, restaurants specializing in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki can be found throughout Japan, not just in Hiroshima.
3. Kakioko (Okayama prefecture)
Hinase, located on the southeastern edge of Okayama, has been a fishing district since the old days. Its special local product is fresh seafood from the Inland Sea, and is particularly famous for its oysters. Okonomiyaki made with these oysters, a local specialty, is called “kaki (oyster) okonomiyaki”, more commonly known as “kakioko”.
4. Monjayaki (Tokyo)
A similar dish to okonomiyaki is monjayaki, a signature dish from the Asakusa/Tsukishima area of Tokyo. Similar to okonomiyaki, this dish is prepared by cooking dough on the teppan installed on a table. However, monjayaki is eaten by scooping it at a thick semi-solid state, and is often classified as a dish different to okonomiyaki.
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- Okonomiyaki and nabe are popular choices when it comes to cooking one's own food at gatherings. A variety of related goods are sold for the purpose of these so called okonomiyaki and nabe parties.
- Oden and the okonomiyaki are sometimes eaten as sides with rice in certain regions, and sometimes eaten as a snack when hungry.
- Okonomiyaki, uses the same wheat flour, and eaten with the same sauce as takoyaki.