Got leftover cabbage? Use it to make okonomiyaki, a Japanese cabbage pancake. By Tan Hsueh Yun
Cabbage is the main ingredient in okonomiyaki, but you can add anything else you want to the pancake. Photo: Marcus Tan / The Straits Times
Finding half a head of cabbage in the fridge can be dangerous.
Of course, the sensible thing would be to make a vegetable stir-fry and use it up quickly and without fuss.
But I get to thinking about what else I can to do with it. Cabbage rolls? Nah, too fiddly. Coleslaw? Nah, it gets soggy if I don’t eat it up quickly. Then I remember okonomiyaki, the Japanese cabbage pancake. (Scroll down for the recipe!)
It is difficult to find a good one here so when I go to Osaka, I queue happily at Mizuno or Chibo for it.
I hate standing in line for anything, but the 45-minute wait for the pancake is worthwhile.
Inside, customers sit in front of large griddles and get a front-row view of the hipster cooks making the pancakes. They do it in an almost flippant manner, like it is the easiest thing in the world.
There is a lot of panache in the way they add the crowning touches: okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, seaweed flakes and bonito flakes, which flutter like they are alive.
After that, the cooks push the pancakes towards customers, who then eat it right off the griddle.
In Fukuoka, I stumble on a restaurant that serves Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a much more hefty version than the Osaka one.
It is layered with a very thin and crisp pancake, noodles, cabbage, pork and copious amounts of the toppings.
Now that version looks difficult to make, but the Osaka one is easy, and delicious to boot. Plus, it uses up my cabbage. I just have to load up on other ingredients.
Okonomi means “what you want” and yaki is “grilled” or “cooked”. That gives a lot of leeway, but the cabbage is non-negotiable.
In addition to that, I like scallions or spring onions, pieces of cooked octopus for a pleasantly chewy texture and the dried pink shrimps called sakura ebi. I also throw in tenkasu, tiny fried balls of dough that are supposed to be the stray bits of cooked batter from tempura.
Of course, the Japanese have ready-made packets of these.
Other options include thin slices of pork belly, which can be chopped up and added to the batter or laid on the pancake in slices. Chopped fresh prawns, ham and any number of things can go into it too.
Most of the ingredients are available in Japanese supermarkets such as Meidi-Ya at Liang Court.
It must be okonomiyaki season, however, because on two trips there, I am unable to find beni shoga, the red tinted strips of ginger that add a splash of colour to the pancakes.
Tenkasu. Photo: Marcus Tan / The Straits Times
Tenkasu is out of stock too, but I get lucky at Nonoiro, a shop on the same floor as the supermarket. It has packets of tenkasu for $2 each.
The batter is a little different from regular pancake batter. Dashi is used to bind the flour, salt and baking powder.
If you have homemade dashi on hand, I congratulate you. Although it makes me very guilty, I use dashi stock granules because all I need is 150ml of the Japanese stock.
An important ingredient in the batter is nagaimo, a root vegetable which, when grated, is slimy. It is whisked into the batter and gives a creamy texture to the inside of the pancake. The root is usually sold in small pieces in Japanese supermarkets.
The trick to a good okonomiyaki is not to drown the vegetables and other ingredients in batter, which is why the nagaimo is essential – its stickiness keeps the pancake from falling apart.
Most people I know do not have large griddles at home, so a non-stick fry pan will have to do. If you have two of them, then make both pancakes simultaneously.
Flipping the pancake can be tricky and I am grateful to have a large, thin spatula. Two silicone ones will work too.
Once the pancakes are ready, just slather the tops with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes and bonito flakes, and dig in.
That half head of cabbage sitting in the fridge has led to a supermarket sweep, a frenzy of cooking, attempts at mayonnaise decoration and many delicious meals.
I think I might have eaten my weight in cabbage, and I have no plans to stop.
• 1 tsp dashi stock granules
• 150ml boiling water
• 100g plain flour
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 1/4 tsp baking powder
• 50g nagaimo (above)
• 300g cabbage
• 2-3 stalks scallions
• 100g cooked octopus
• 2-3 Tbs sakura ebi
• 50g tenkasu
• 2 eggs
• 2 Tbs cooking oil
• 6 to 8 slices thinly sliced belly pork (optional)
• Okonomiyaki sauce
• Japanese mayonnaise
• Seaweed flakes
• Bonito flakes
1. Add the dashi stock granules to the boiling water, stir and let sit.
2. Measure out the flour, salt and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Peel the nagaimo. Make a well in the flour mixture, pour in the dashi and mix well with a whisk until there are no lumps. Grate the nagaimo into the batter. Some people might get itchy skin from contact with the nagaimo, so hold it with a paper towel while grating. Whisk the batter with the nagaimo vigorously. The mixture should be slightly sticky.
3. Remove and discard the core of the cabbage and cut the leaves into 1cm pieces. Finely slice the scallions crosswise. Cut the octopus into 1/2cm pieces.
4. Add the cabbage, scallions, octopus, sakura ebi, tenkasu and eggs into the mixing bowl. Mix well with a sturdy spoon. The ingredients should just be lightly coated with the batter.
5. Heat 1 Tbs of the oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium low heat. Scoop half the pancake mixture into a smaller bowl and give it one last mix.
6. When the oil is shimmering, pour the pancake mixture into the pan. Using the back of a spoon, gently pat the top to get an even thickness, and nudge the circumference of the pancake into a neat circle about 18cm in diameter. Do not press down on the pancake. If using the pork, fold three or four slices in half and lay them on the pancake. Cover and cook for two minutes, or until the bottom is browned.
7. Flip the pancake over carefully, using a large spatula or two smaller ones. Cover and cook the pancake for another one to two minutes, until the underside is browned. Flip it over again and place on a serving plate.
8. Use the rest of the oil, pancake mixture and pork (if using), to make a second okonomiyaki and plate that too.
9. Brush okonomiyaki sauce over both the pancakes and squeeze the mayonnaise over them. Sprinkle with seaweed flakes and top with a small handful of bonito flakes. Serve immediately.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline ‘Pancakes your way’.