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The Okonomiyaki Story

(and a tribute to the Hairy Bikers too.)

Chatting with some customers in the restaurant recently, a chap was exclaiming how delicious was the dish he was eating but, “Could you please explain what I am actually eating?” 

That dish was my ‘award-winning’ version of the ‘Japanese okonomiyaki,’ and it does take some explaining, especially the story behind it, which I will relate now…

I was introduced to Japanese cooking by a student we had staying with us in the early 2000s. Just a few dishes that whetted my appetite, so to speak, and I collected a few recipe books after that. We’re lucky in this country to have such a range of cuisines present in the restaurant sector, that there’s always a chance to try a selection of different dishes from any one country without having to make the trip halfway around the world, which is just as well, as I’ve never been able to afford such a journey. So I had tried a number of different recipe ideas from books or eating out, but had not come across the okonomiyaki until I saw it on the Hairy Biker’s programme, and the late great Dave Myers especially was getting quite excited about this streetfood classic! I immediately realised the potential of the dish as a candidate for veganising and started playing with a version of it around 2017.

Initially the idea was to simply create a vegan pancake, filled with some seasonal veg, tofu, and topped with some delicious sauces. At the time, I was experimenting with different vegan batters, for Toad in the Hole, Yorkshires, and Spanish Tortillas, so this seemed like a natural progression. The principle was very much like a Spanish Tortilla: A thick omelette or pancake filled with leftover veg and sometimes noodles, occasionally pork belly, often tempura scraps; bits of leftover batter from deep fried veg. Sometimes the pancake might be yeasted or fermented, sometimes more eggy, sometimes not. It seemed every region and individual cook had their own way of preparing this dish, hence its name: ‘Okonomiyaki’ means: 'Cooked how you like it.’ As far as I know, there is no vegan version of this, though I’m sure someone else will have tried it, but ‘how I like it’ would be vegan and gluten free, with local produce!

In 2018 I had a go at a ‘fine dining’ version for the cook-off of the Norfolk Chef of the Year. My decision was to make the pancake, then serve a slice of it with some accompaniments, including a vegan mayonnaise and Norfolk Samphire. The judges were right to say however, that it was not refined enough, and I went back to the drawing board, concentrating on a different dish for the following year’s competition.

In 2021, the International Salon Culinaire, a chef’s competition I had been following for some years, introduced its first ‘Plant Forward’ category. Until that time they had had vegetarian categories, but these were sponsored by cheese or dairy companies that required the use of their product. That year there was a main course that must include a brand of mushroom stock, and although you could use dairy, the essence of the dish had to be plant based. I knew I would have to participate, and the mushroom stock led me to consider using it in the okonomi sauce, a sort of Japanese brown sauce that, along with a Japanese mayo, garnished the Okonomiyaki.

I thought about all the elements of the Okonimiyaki that I could make with local produce. Starting with the sauce, using the mushroom stock, and British fermented fava bean paste instead of miso. These, along with soy and wines and chilli and sesame, and a few other things were reduced to a sticky barbecue-like consistency. To enhance the pancake, which was easy to make with local produce, I included some of the sauce in the batter to emphasise the flavour, as well as some of my own vegan mayo for flavour and texture. As most of the wasabi we use is actually horseradish, I cut to the chase and used fresh horseradish to flavour the mayo. Having made a batter, I then pushed some through a slotted spoon into a deep-fryer to make ‘scraps’ which then went back into the pancake, along with vegetables stir fried in the unreduced okonomi sauce, silken tofu, and gluten free rice noodles flavoured with sesame.

Now I had the pancake I needed to refine it, and I tried cutting cubes and deep-frying them in tempura batter, which was tasty, but not what I was after. I thought about the pork belly that sometimes gets incorporated in traditional okonomi batters, and how it is often used by chefs, slow roasted in a sticky sauce like mine. The idea came to take slices of the pancake, baste them in the okonomi sauce, and roast them, when the slices came out they would be glazed again, and garnished with the mayo. Finishing touches included using fried kale as a ‘seaweed’ and serving with a celeriac remoulade, homemade kimchi and pickled kohlrabi. And there, in essence was the Okonomiyaki, cooked how I like it! 

After all that effort, the galling thing was that the Okonomiyaki garnered a silver medal, as did another dish, but we were both pipped to top spot by a ‘regular’ chef, having his first try at a vegan dish! That would have been the end of the story, but a local reporter picked it up and at the end of the interview asked if it would be on my menu? I demurred, because it was very different to everything I had served up to that date, but she insisted I should try. I did a tasting session for my staff, and we put it on the menu… It sold out on the first night and has been a consistent top-seller ever since! What’s more is that usually, with any dish, there’ll be some for whom it’s not their thing and they won’t like it, but to date, no one who has tried the Okonomiyaki has not liked it! A fact that I still can’t believe, and although it has undergone some tweaks in the past few years, it has never left the menu, with just the ingredients and accompaniments changing with the seasons and available produce. 

I get the feeling that if I’m ever going to replace that dish, it will have to be with something quite special… Perhaps a gold medal winner this time?

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