It is the ultimate late-night snack in six syllables. Okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake, is crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside and rich, briny, smoky or sweet on top, depending on how its dressed. According to Stephen Mizuno of Sanko Trading Co., Toronto's long-time purveyor of Japanese foods, the word okonomi means "as you like it" (yaki means grilled), so it's a food, in fact, calling out for personalization. "Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki and so is Hiroshima," says Mizuno. "There are seafood versions and meat versions; everyone has their own specialty."
Make it at home: Easy Okonomiyaki with Shrimp
In Japan, an okonomiyaki house might serve several varieties of the dish and not much else, catering to customers eager for a quick lunch, a bite after work or late-night pub food. Here in North America, it's poised for its big moment, showing up in hip restaurants in New York and on izakaya menus across Canada. It's as comforting as ramen, playful as tacos and open to almost anything a chef can imagine.
Common to just about all versions is a simple batter of flour and water or broth, a few eggs and plenty of shredded cabbage. Then you have choices. Fancy some squid or shrimp in your pancake? There's an oko for that. Prefer fatty pork belly? That works, too. At more traditional restaurants, like the Okonomi House in downtown Toronto, the cake is grilled, but the izakaya experts at Guu in Vancouver deep-fry theirs, creating a thirst only a cold Asahi Dry can slake.
As for garnishes, a raw egg cracked on top is big in Japan, says Mizuno, but he finds that Canadians prefer toppings such as shredded nori, mayonnaise, sweet and sour okonomiyaki sauce and bonito flakes that tremble as the dish is carried to the table.
South of the border, meanwhile, buzzy New York restaurants are pushing the trendy pancake into more adventurous territory. At the Lower East Side noodle temple Ivan Ramen, the okonomiyaki is made from scrapple pressed in a waffle iron, while Shalom Japan in Brooklyn serves a fusion pancake that combines the Jewish and Japanese heritage of its two chefs. "Because the dish means 'how you like it,' we thought we'd do a take inspired by Jewish deli," says co-chef Aaron Israel. He and partner Sawako Okochi, who grew up eating okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, serve it with corned lamb's tongue and sauerkraut. At brunch, they top the pancake with a fried egg.
Okonomiyaki, says Israel, is really just a vehicle – crispy, delicious and ready to elevate your weirdest or most decadent cravings into a dish you can legitimately serve to your friends. Love pickles, organ meat, oysters, steak tartare, dandelion greens and caviar? Lay 'em on there. Just don't forget the cold beer.