Japan – Part 4: Okonomiyaki

This week – I have a guest post from my other half!

“Our trip to Japan was amazing.  As both of us love our food, the majority of our time was dedicated to working our way through the amazing breadth of culinary experiences available.  The highlights for me, however, were the two times that we ate Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き).  The first time was hidden somewhere in the depths of Harajuku; we only knew about it because of Jules and the amazing scope of her research but I still don’t believe we actually found it!  As with most of the great places we ate, this was way off the beaten path; the restaurant itself (Sakura Tei) was at the end of what appeared to be a residential cul-de-sac and was tucked at the end of a dark little path, with only a small sign at the road.
A dark and foreboding exterior with a wooden grill door, hidden in the shade of dense bamboo on either side of the path, adorned with a funky sign.  Once inside, we were instantly excited.  The dark theme continued within, in what seemed to be a converted Japanese house.  There was a real ‘indie’ feel and positive energy about the place, which was run by young and trendy looking twenty-somethings.
The sound of sizzling and faint grey clouds of barbeque smoke filled the air around the tables.  While it was dark inside, they had a covered area outside with gas grills.
There were detailed instructions with illustrations of how to make your Okonomiyaki. Several people appeared to go for the all-you-can-eat option and appeared to be making an afternoon of it, with a close friend.
Sakura Tei さくら亭
Sakura Tei – instructions for making monja
We followed the instructions carefully, while listening to music and drinking Shochu, an alcoholic drink made from fermented potatoes, which was not too dissimilar to vodka. After 10 minutes, we delighted in our creations, both in appearance and taste.
Monja Street (Nishinaka Dori) in Tsujikishima
While our first experience of Okonomiyaki was pretty special, the second time we ate it was amazing.  Monja Street in Tsujikishima (a small island near Shidome) is the home of Okonomiyaki.
Walking along the quiet street, a stark contrast to every other borough we visited in Tokyo, we adopted our usual screening technique to see which restaurant would most closely meet our tried and tested criteria. The best restaurants were all known and frequented by the local people and therefore do not have to advertise much.  These restaurants never have any English on the menu, are quite difficult to see into before you enter and almost never have any Westerners in there.  When it comes to finding the best Japanese eateries, we found consistently that the more unwelcoming they seem, the better they are!
Down a small, dark alleyway, off the main street, we saw a plethora of small neon signs outside a small wooden building, none of which had any English on them.  A good sign. There was even a long bench for waiting customers was outside, empty at present.
To finalize our decision whether to eat there, we peered through the small, steamy windows.  It was not easy to see in, but what we could see was promising.  The place seemed to be alive with activity.  There were two small rooms which were packed with locals, all sitting around rectangular hot plates and eating furiously.  The smell was amazing, fried pork, seafood and egg.  There were only two seats free and we quickly decided to go in.
Jules opened a door and was met with disapproving glances from those inside; this was the exit.  Embarrassed, we were pointed to the entrance door and tentatively opened that instead.  Entering the room was a real assault on the senses: the sounds of people chattering in Japanese while the sizzling of their food threw clouds of smoke into the air.  Fans on the walls attempted to take the smoke outside.  Outside was hot and humid, even for this time in the evening, but the heat of the hot plates made it at least a few degrees hotter inside.
The walls were wooden, slightly rickety, and adorned with handmade posters of Japanese writing with pictures of ingredients and black and white photos of previous visitors to the restaurant, some of them presumably famous as their signatures were on the photos.  There was a line of order notes along the bar at the back of the room, with a few small wooden kegs of sake, Japanese characters and taps on the front.
We were beckoned hurriedly inside by a lady who appeared to be in her 60’s, wearing a twisted rope headband. This was the matriarch of the establishment, commanding and directing her team from the small cash register at the back of the room.  We sat at the only free table, apparently unnoticed by the other patrons.
We managed to order two beers, which she brought to us and got out her notepad to take our order.  Jules tried reverting back to the most useful phrase that she had learnt… dore ga osusume desu ka?… “What would you recomm…”
Realising that we were English speakers, she smiled and turned to shout for some of the other staff.  They furtively looked in the adjacent room for what we guessed would be the only English speaker in the establishment.
A well-built, stocky young Japanese man approached our table and stood over us.  He wore a bandana and had a black beard that just ran along his jaw-line, looking more like a butcher or a villain from a Samurai movie than a customer relations expert.  I had visions of him wielding a cleaver, slicing up some large animal in the back room only allowed out to get rid of brawlers.  He spoke in a quiet and husky voice, appearing embarrassed and more timid than expected from his fearsome appearance.  He muttered something in Japanese.  We looked worriedly at each other, before looking up blankly at him, conveying as much emptiness in our eyes as we could manage.  Was this the first time that we would fail to order?  Would we have to admit defeat and leave, hungry and embarrassed?
He looked up and into the distance, confused, searching for words in the recesses of his mind before saying,
“Ummmm… PIG!”.
We nodded enthusiastically, delighted to finally make any sort of a connection with someone, no matter how small.  We exclaimed in unison, “pig, hai (yes)!”
He paused, with a pained expression on his face as he searched for another word.   
“Ummmm… … SHRIMP!”
We again nodded vigorously, again in unison exclaiming;
“Shrimp, hai!”.
He smiled warmly, a look of satisfaction and relief on his face, visibly pleased with his proficiency in English translation, and went off to organize the pig and shrimp.
We really had no idea what this brief and concise exchange would result in, half expecting that he might lead a live pig out to meet us and even, perhaps, a bowl of live shrimp.  We were, however, relieved to receive a bowl of the traditional Okonomyaki ingredients with slices of pork and prawns, accompanied by several Japanese condiments such as Benito flakes.
Another young Japanese man, who looked like a modern pirate, attended our table.  Apparently, in this restaurant, the cooking was performed by the staff.  He was a ninja with his spatulas, hands moving faster than the eye, expertly tousling the ingredients from one instrument to the other on the hot plate and, after approximately 5 seconds, it was done.  He raised a finger and shot us each a warning glance.  We knew that we were to wait until it was cooked, so we sat silently, drinking our frosty beers from old rugged and scratched glass tankards, soaking up the atmosphere and watching as our ingredients gradually turned into a delicious Okonomiyaki.
Monja Street Okonomiyaki
The pirate returned after a few minutes to flip it over, add mayonnaise, sauce, seasoning and lots of bonito flakes, all in record time.  He smiled broadly and gestured that we should eat.  We tucked in.  It was delicious.  After my second bite, I was already considering what sign language would most effectively convey that we would like another.  This stuff was really filling, however, and after eating half each and finishing our beers, it was apparent that we could not fit any more in.  In addition to this, and despite the cold beer, the heat of the room seemed to escalate and we decided to venture back into the cooler, 30oC, streets.   We indicated that we were full, by blowing our cheeks out and patting our bellies, universal language for “yes, I have eaten enough and am quite satisfied now, thank-you”.  We paid the bill and reluctantly left, ambling through the quiet streets, admiring the signs and doors of the other restaurants, sweating and smelling faintly of Okonomiyaki smoke.”
Topped with bonita flakes.

Make your own Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki Recipe

100g plain flour
160ml dashi soup stock or chicken stock
300g finely sliced green cabbage
100g sliced green onions
2 tsps sliced pickled ginger
2 eggs
6 strips of bacon – or lean pork
100g raw prawns
Nori flakes

Okonomiyaki sauce (this is like a thick Worcestershire sauce – you can get the same effect with HP sauce)
Japanese Mayonnaise
(Katsuobushi) Bonito flakes

1. Prepare all your ingredients.
2. Mix the stock and flour together.
3. Add the cabbage, eggs, prawns, ginger, nori, and onions together.
4. Heat a griddle or frying pan with a drizzle of oil.
5. Divide the mixture into two bowls.
6. Pour the contents of the bowl onto the griddle and fry for 5 minutes.
7. Flip over and fry for a further 5 minutes.
8. Drizzle with okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise and top with bonito flakes.

To make this ‘Harajuku style’, fry an egg in a separate saucepan, when it is almost ready, place on top of the now cooked okonomiyaki, break the yolk and flip over for a few seconds.

Okonomiyaki – roughly translates as;  “as you like it fried thing”. Well, fried thing, think I love you.

A three hole squeezy bottle for okonomiyaki. Only one yen!

Check out this brilliantly illustrated okonomiyaki recipe by Oolloo the Great.

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