Making the best (okonomiyaki) of what you have (in North America)

I am not an okonomiyaki snob. But coming from Osaka, I have a lot to say about okonomiyaki. I still hold an okonomiyaki grudge against a friend from about 3 years ago. I have another okonomiyaki related grudge against a person that I am even ashamed to voice. Apparently, okonomiyaki is important to me.

Okonomiyaki requires ingredients that are not really pantry staples. Mountain potato or mountain potato powder? Little fried tempura nuggets (tenkasu)? Aonori? Who would have a regular supply of those in the kitchen?

And those okonomiyaki mixes sold on the shelves of Japanese food stores? Don’t buy them. First, they are what Bisquick is to pancakes.  Second, the sugars and whatever nutritious things in those mixes attract insects. If you have them lying around for an extended amount of time in room temperature, the chance is that you have a whole breeding farm on your hands.

So, after several years, I devised a simple, okonomiyaki recipe that is different, yet wonderfully tasty and can be made with ingredients that are easy to acquire.

I also realized that many North American home cooks have some advantages above the Japanese home cooks.

1. The ubiquity of cast iron cookware.

Cast iron cookware is quite rare in Japan, which is a shame considering that it’s probably one of the best materials to cook okonomiyaki on. A cast iron griddle is the ideal vessel for cooking a crisp yet light okonomiyaki.

2. Access to ingredients that are expensive in Japan.

While pork, squid, and shrimp are probably the most standard toppings for okonomiyaki, there are infinite variations. Among those non-conventional okonomiyaki are those that use ingredients in Western cooking, such as cheese and cured meat. However, supermarket quality cheese and bacon in Japan are of very, very sad quality. Bacon and cheese that are equivalent to generic supermarket brand quality in the US are very expensive in Japan, and not something you throw into a cabbage pancake. By using stuff like hormel bacon and Kroger cheese, you already get a Western themed okonomiyaki that’s much better than what you might get in Japan.

Anyway, you can make pretty good okonomiyaki in North America.

Okonomiyaki consists of three parts: the base (cabbage, flour), the toppings (pork belly, squid, shrimp, etc.) and the sauce.

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The base:

Basic steps are:

1. mix the dry ingredients, then the dashi stock (or dashi granules with water)

2. Throw in the cabbage

3. Throw in an egg, and mix

Making a fluffy and light okonomiyaki relies on the use of grated mountain potatoes (yamaimo) to make them light and fluffy. However, mountain potatoes are hard to acquire, or are quite expensive. In order to compensate for the lack of mountain potatoes, I increase the amount of cabbage relative to the amount of flour, so that the okonomiyaki would have a lighter, less doughy texture. I use about 50-60g flour (that’s about 2 ounces, or a bit less than half a cup of flour) to about 150g (about 1/3 pound, a bit more than 5 ounces) of cabbage per one okonomiyaki. Basically, that’s enough cabbage to create a 1 inch high 10 inch disc shape on its own.

Mix the flour with a dash of salt and half a teaspoon of baking powder. You want to mix about 60-70ml dashi (or water mixed with dashi stock) taking precautions not to over mix it.

And now, the cabbage.

Here’s the important part: DON’T mince the cabbage. Cut the cabbage into strips, from pole to pole (lengthwise, not sideways. I hope this makes some sense. If the cabbage was earth, you cut from north to south, not the way parallel to the equator). Cutting into strips will create an intricate network of cabbage that supports the structural integrity of the okonomiyaki, even with the small amount of flour that we are using for this recipe.

Throw the cabbage into the batter, crack an egg on top, and mix until everything is distributed evenly. But don’t over mix.

 

Toppings:

In okonomiyaki, you can either mix the toppings into the batter or have the topping line one side of the okonomiyaki, cooking the ingredient into the surface of the okonomiyaki. Mixing in is popular with ingredients that are either not raw or are ready to consume without cooking, such as cheese or cubes of rice cakes. Cooking into one side of the okonomiyaki is more popular with ingredients such as pork belly and squid that develops a nice sear. I once made an okonomiyaki with hatch chilis lining one side, which created a charred, peppery crust to the okonomiyaki. As I said above, one of my favorites is okonomiyaki with cubes of dry mozzarella and bacon.

Sauce:

Throw anything you want on there. Of course, okonomiyaki sauce by Otafuku (the one with the creepy face on it) is the standard. My friend swears by a mix of “aurora” sauce, which is just ketchup mixed with an equal amount of mayo. I once slathered some wonderfully cumin-heavy BBQ sauce from Gates (my favorite sauce for KC style BBQ), which was pretty interesting. Another interesting method when you’re out of okonomiyaki sauce is to brush the top with some soy sauce and throw it under the broiler until the soy sauce sizzles. In this case, sprinkling some Shichimi chili peppers on the okonomiyaki is a good idea. Don’t forget to top the okonomiyaki with some bonito flakes, mayonnaise, and some sliced scallions, regardless of what sauce you throw on there.

The procedure:

Heat pan until lightly smoking, lower to medium heat, throw the cabbage batter on there, line the top with toppings, and wait 3 minutes.

Flip (and I guarantee the first try will be disastrous. Squish the broken pieces together until they resemble okonomiyaki, and you’ll be fine. The second flip is much easier) and leave for another 3-4 minutes.

Flip one last time, and sauce the whole thing while it’s on the pan. This will ensure that the okonomiyaki will stay warm.

Enjoy one last look of your beautiful okonomiyaki until you cut it, and make it into a mess.

 

 

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Makgeolli: Korean fizzy alcoholic rice drink

I’ve made more than a dozen batches of makgeolli now, so I think I’m qualified to talk about the subject. I cannot testify on the autheticness of my makgeolli recipe now, since I integrated some techniques from making Japanese sake and doburoku (house made unrefined liquor) in my methodology.

The basic recipe that I follow is this one.  By the way, this guy is much more knowledgeable than I am, so whatever he says is much more reliable.

The hardest part of making makgeolli is sterilizing stuff. I basically use the basic bleach solution that people use for sterilization (a tablespoon bleach in a gallon of water) and left if there for 20 minutes. I saw a guy in a video swirling soju (about 20% alcohol) for sterilization, but I don’t think that really cuts it. Bleach, star-san, one-step, or other solutions conventionally used for home brewing are a safe bet.

However, I do negate whatever sterilization method I use by squeezing out makgeolli by hand in the final part of the process, so I really can’t say I’m right or well informed or anything. I just deceive myself that I am.

One way that I comfort myself that my batches are safe is by using the Japanese sake method of Sandan-jikomi. This is done by introducing the nuruk (enzymes) and rice in three steps, doubling the ingredients each time. . This is to ensure that there’s a consistently large number of yeast-being-things living inside the fermenting liquid, and that they aren’t overwhelmed by other microbes that introduces off-flavors. So using the ingredient ratio that I got from the link, this is how I proceed:

Nuruk: 15g, 30g, 55g.

Rice: 150g, 300g, 550g. I usually make 450 grams of rice on the first day, pitch 1/3 of the rice into the fermentation vessel, and freeze the rest, which I defrost and pitch in the vessel the next day.

Water: 250ml, 500ml, 850ml.

You might be alarmed because the rice absorbs a lot of water, resulting in a thick sludgy porridge.

Makgeolli

But don’t worry. Just keep stirring it once or twice every day, until you stop getting a layer of dry (or less liquid-like) parts on the top of your batch. The day you find a layer of pure liquid covering the rice, you’re done. Or anyway, that’s my criteria. Then, you pour the whole thing into a paint straining bag, or a nylon mesh bag from the wine store, or something along those lines. Squeeze the hell out of it, and you get this:

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Fizzy, white, rice liquid.

Wonderful.

Most people dilute it, and add non-fermentable sweeteners. I used to add simple syrup to sweeten it, until I decided that it tastes good enough on its own.

If you get really cheap rice (sushi rice will do, long-grain rice won’t) you can make an approximately three liter batch that’s around 9% for about three dollars. In Vancouver, that’s extremely cheap liquor.

Thank the person who posted the original recipe. I feel gratitude toward him every time I open a bottle of homemade makgeolli, or when I consider how much I reduced my monthly alcohol budget.

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Mushroom Japanese pasta

In Japan, the mixture of Japanese flavor and Italian noodles comprises a whole subgenre of pasta cooking. This strange hybrid group of dishes with ingredients like mentaiko (marinated fish roe) and marinated enoki mushrooms may sound repulsive, but are in fact delicious. The addition of umami laden condiments like soy sauce and miso introduces complexity to pasta dishes.

Mushroom Aglio e olio

Making Japanese pasta dishes, especially soy sauced based ones, are extremely easy. For this one, the only thing I had to do is sauté the mushrooms in olive oil with garlic and dried chili, add some soy sauce and sake, reduce the whole thing until very little liquid remains, then add some pasta water (don’t add as much salt as you usually would to the pasta water), and toss the pasta with some green onions.

You can play around with the dish by throwing some dried shrimp with the garlic and chili for some briny flavor, or by subbing the soy sauce with menmi. My recent favorite is combining dried shrimp, garlic, and do chi (chinese fermented black beans) to flavor the oil, and finishing it with some soy sauce and shiaoxian wine for Chinese influenced noodles.

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Spinach Sichuan noodles

 

 

 

Spinach sichzuan noodles

 

Amazing recipe from Serious Eat’s J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. Reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s books made me realize how versatile this sauce (that I originally associated only with dan dan mien) is, and I’ve been making it in large batches. I’m fantasizing with making these again, but using pepper leaves. I haven’t encountered pepper leaves until I came to Vancouver, but they are insanely versatile and has a light peppery aroma. I’ve been using them mostly in miso soups with tofu and stir-fries, but blanched and mixed in with noodles would be a great way to eat them too.

 

 

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Deep fried tofu, Agedashi tofu

Tofu is not a substitute for meat.

Tofu is not a meat substitute.

It pisses me off when an Asian restaurant offers a dish in “chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, or tofu.” It would probably piss me off if I went to a restaurant in Japan and they offered the option to sub beef for chicken or pork in my sliders. Or tofu in my chili.

Tofu dishes can be vegetarian. But a large part of tofu dishes contain meat or fish products in one way or another to add some flavor to the rather bland soy bean cake.

So please don’t think of tofu as a meat substitute for vegans and vegetarian. And please don’t think that this dish can be arranged to make vegetarian versions of buffalo fried tofu, or whatever it is.

However, stubbornness has never been one of my traits, so let me know if there’s a dish that uses tofu as a meat substitute in a western context, and manages to pull it off.

Home made deep fried tofu with grated ginger and scallions

 

Agedashi dofu is usually bought in a supermarket fried and ready to eat. It’s more of a side dish that people can just open, dump in a bowl, and throw on the table as an afterthought than a main dish. However, frying the tofu yourself right before the meal makes the dish worthy as a main dish.

Making it is actually extremely simple. Heat up the oil fairly high, about 350 degrees, and throw in the tofu that’s been thoroughly dried on the outside. Have the heat around medium or medium high, and wait until the exterior is browned and crispy. The lower the heat and longer the frying time, the thicker the browned, crispy part becomes.

Throw on scallions, bonito flakes, or anything that you want. My favorite is kimchi and dried anchovy infused soy sauce. I guess that already goes against any notion of authenticity.

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Macaroni gratin, the only casserole in Japanese cuisine

Writing about lasagna made me nostalgic of macaroni gratin, which was a staple in our house. However, we never made it from scratch. We bought frozen versions that came in aluminum dishes, and chucked them into the toaster oven for a quick dinner. Although frozen dinners have a bad reputation in the US, Japanese frozen food ranges from “not bad” to “orgasmic night snack.” Interesting thing about Japan is, it’s hard to find genuinely disgusting food that people have aversions to. For example, convenience store foods lack the stigmatization and also the layer of stale oil that are usually associated with US gas station/convenience store food. I remember my friend’s expression when I casually bought a burger from a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Kansas. The burger had developed a look that reminded me of the tortoise in the desert fable from Blade Runner, from the long days of basking in the rays of the food warming contraption.

Anyway, I sometimes crave the frozen gratin from the frozen food aisle, but lack the means to acquire them. I tried making it a couple of times, using as a reference mac and cheese recipes from the US. However, these attempts left me with a mound of squishy yet dry overcooked macaroni. Despite these failures, I never thought of reassessing my sauce to noodle ratio and kept cranking out these macaroni sponges. Once I scanned Japanese gratin recipes, I realized my mistake.

Penne Chicken gratin

 

So the right ratio was about 1/4 pound of noodles (I used penne in this one) for about 2 cups of béchamel sauce, which made enough for my 6 cup pyrex dish. I think it was my 6 cup one. Or maybe the 3 cup. I’m not too sure. Anyway, it fed two people easily, despite the small amount of noodles that went in to the dish. Using this noodle-to-sauce ratio resulted in a gratin that was just like the ones I ate in Japan, creamy, yet not too heavy.

As with the lasagna, I just soaked the penne in water for about an hour, instead of boiling them.

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Filed under Food, Japanese noodles, pasta

Lasagna, and making regular lasagna noodles no-boil

Lasagna, and making regular lasagna noodles no-boil

The loveliness of a conventional béchamel and bolognese doused lasagna. I did a little testing, and instead of boiling lasagna noodle sheets or using no-boil sheets, I soaked the pasta in cold tap water for over an hour, and stuck it in a lasagna. The result were pasta that were fully cooked but retained some texture. This technique could probably be used for most casserole applications.

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December 18, 2013 · 10:23 pm