It was the cabbage that first drew me to Sonoko Sakai's okonomiyaki. Loving an ingredient is not a personality. But if it were a personality, mine would be Cabbage Lover Extraordinaire and I'd ask you to follow me on Instagram @cabbagecontent.
In Sakai's dish, from her new cookbook Japanese Home Cooking, heaps of thinly sliced cabbage lend lightness and tenderness and sweetness to a crisp-on-the-outside savory pancake. And it just so happens that I have a passion for savory pancakes that rivals my passion for cabbage—kimchi-buchimgae and giant chickpea pancakes topped with piles of greens are the stars of my regular weeknight dinner rotation. That, and a big pile of cabbage stirred into warm homemade broth, are the things I rely on to feed me when I get home in the winter and want foods that exist at the intersection of vegetable-heavy and deeply comforting.
I'd had plenty of okonomiyaki in restaurants—and I thought they were difficult to replicate at home. I thought they were heavy, potentially deep-fried, and complex to make. But this recipe seemed to promise a light, simple version of the dish, a perfect combination of the two things I love most: all the cabbage I want to eat, in perfect savory pancake form.
And now we're hooked on it, too.
The pancake itself is light and fluffy and a bit of a blank canvas: it involves little more than mixing flour, milk or alt milk, baking soda, salt, and egg together, then folding in thinly sliced bell pepper, scallions, and lots of cabbage. You scoop out a little helping and cook it in a cast-iron skillet with a little neutral oil. Cook one side until it's crispy and golden and then, just before flipping, add a little thinly-sliced meat to the top. Sakai recommends shrimp, crab, or sukiyaki-style pork or beef. I always make the dish with the simple frozen shrimp that lurk in my freezer, chopped into thin slices. But, I have a feeling if you could get your hands on some high-quality crab it would be fairly transcendent.
All of this is a vehicle for a few powerful condiments: top the cooked pancake with Japanese mayo, tonkatsu sauce, crumbled nori, and crucially, bonito flakes that add a burst of savory flavor.
"Okonomiyaki is ancient and Chinese in origin," Sakai recently told me over email. "It traces its roots to little cakes that were made by combining flour and water and served during the tea ceremony. The little cakes evolved into takoyaki, round balls with chopped octopus filling, and other batter-based dishes," says Sakai.
Sakai also told me that okonomiyaki can be divided into two broad groups: Hiroshima-style and Kansai-style. "Hiroshima-style is made with layers of ingredients, starting with a thin crepe-like pancake to which a mound of shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, and thin slices of pork are piled high on top, then flipped to allow the pancake to rest on top while the cabbage steams and cooks, and naturally sweetens the pancake." It's often served with noodles. Sakai's recipe, though, is more in line with a Kansai-style okonomiyaki. Rather than being cooked on top of the pancake, the cabbage, bean sprouts, and scallions are mixed together with the pancake batter, and the result is fluffy. Typical Kansai-style okonomiyaki contains yamaimo, or mountain yam, which lends the dish a bit of creaminess and sweetness, though Sakai skips it in her recipe in Japanese Home Cooking.
I'd been keeping these pancakes to myself, enjoying making and eating Sakai's okonomiyaki recipe on my own, holed up in my apartment. But traditionally they're a bit of a party food. "Okonomiyaki is cooked on a hot cast-iron pan, often in a communal setting with the cast iron in the middle of the dining table. The restaurant will bring the prepared batter and you do the cooking yourself. There are bars and cafes where the chefs will make the okonomiyaki right in front of you," she told me.
Enjoying these communal experiences made Sakai want to include the recipe in her cookbook: "I grew up making and eating okonomiyaki at okonomiyaki cafes when I was in junior high school in Tokyo," she says. "It is the thing we did with my girlfriends. It's the most convivial way to cook and eat and hang out with friends," and you learn to cook the dish by watching others at the table. "It's pretty simple," Sakai says.
This simplicity has drawn me to okonomiyaki over and over this past year. And I've found the recipe to be remarkably forgiving. The first time I made the dish, I chopped all of the vegetables and weighed and measured them according to the directions. But, as often happens when I'm cooking, subsequent attempts found me dumping large volumes of chopped cabbage and scallion into the batter willy-nilly. While I've had my batter turn out thicker than the instructions recommend, the recipe has always worked for me—crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, with a crunchy sweetness from the cabbage.
Of course, you can get ambitious if you want. Sakai provides sub-recipes in the book for making your own Japanese mayo, as well as your own tonkatsu sauce. Doing this makes the dish next level, but I've also had great results topping the pancakes with store bought sauces. In fact. Sakai herself isn't big on mayo and prefers a relatively naked okonomiyaki. She often eats them plain, just with a little salt or soy sauce. On a weeknight, simple feels right. But it's there for you to do it up right, making each of the sauces from scratch and laying them out with the bonito flakes and nori in little bowls. Invite your friends over for an assemple-your-own okonomiyaki party in the spirit of the dish's communal restaurant tradition.
I came for the cabbage in 2019. I'm staying for the party potential in 2020. What was my Tuesday solo dinner is going to be my go-to entertaining dish.Sonoko Sakai
Originally Appeared on Epicurious