Making Okonomiyaki, a Savory Japanese “Pancake” with Brown Ale

Cooking with Beer by | Feb 2017 | Issue #121
Photo by Sean Z. Paxton

I recently discovered something called a Savory Japanese Pancake on the menu of an Osaka-style restaurant. When it arrived at the table, I was instantly curious. As the waiter delivered this plate of art, ribbons of sauces interlaced across the top, and different colors and textures waited to be identified. Waving fins of smoke and dried tuna shavings danced atop the dish. Crispy on the outside and tender and fluffy in the inside, the first bite of what might be called a Japanese pizza was filled with thinly sliced vegetables and an incredible mix of stimulating and umami-rich flavors. I reached for my Japanese lager and loved how the hops in the Pilsner-style beer opened up the many different flavors I tasted. I thought about all of the ways this dish is a great example of beer cuisine.

One key Okonomiyaki ingredient that isn’t as common in most US grocery stores is yamaimo, or Japanese mountain yam. This is a strange starch, similar in appearance to manioc and daikon, with a long shape and thick skin. Once cut into, the texture of this starchy root becomes gooey and slimy. Mixing it with flour, eggs, beer, and a Japanese-style broth called dashi, however, create a silky smooth texture with a fluffy, soufflé-like mouthfeel. I’ve included easy recipes for making tempura batter, dashi, and Okonomiyaki sauce to build this dish, which can be an entree, or a shareable course at a family meal or a beer dinner.

The beauty of the base recipe is that it offers an endless number of possible combinations for cooks who like to experiment. Typically the filling is made with vegetables, adding a supportive flavor and texture. Note that cabbage can call attention to dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, a flavor of cooked corn or green cabbage that is present in lagers. With all the umami-rich flavors as distractions, though, I still use it in this recipe. If you’re worried, other greens—kale, escarole, bok choy—can be substituted.

Serves: 6 – 8 guests

Cake Ingredients
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch, sweet potato flour, or tapioca starch
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 extra-large eggs
1/4 cup Dashi, cold (recipe follows)
1 tsp soy sauce
1 cup yamaimo, or Japanese mountain yam
1/2 cup Brown Ale, such as Big Sky Brewing Moose Drool
2 tbsp vegetable oil (or another neutral flavored oil)

1/2 cup tenkasu or tempura scraps (recipe follows)
2 cup Napa cabbage, cored and sliced thin
2 green onions or scallions, sliced thin on the bias
1 carrot, large, peeled and grated
2 tbsp pickled red ginger, julienned

1 Okonomiyaki Sauce (recipe follows)
1/2 cup Japanese-style mayonnaise, Kewpie brand or homemade
2 green onions or scallions, sliced thin on the bias
2 tbsp pickled red ginger, julienned
3 tbsp katsuobushi or dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes
1 tbsp aonori or dried seaweed powder (or julienned nori sheets)
2 tbsp flavored tobiko (caviar), such as yuzu, wasabi, or squid ink
1 tsp white sesame seeds, toasted
1 tsp black sesame seeds
1/2 tsp white peppercorns, freshly cracked

In a bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, starch, and baking powder. In another large bowl, whisk the eggs until very frothy, then add the Dashi and soy sauce. Peel the yamaimo and grate it on a medium to fine box grater. The texture will be slimy; this is normal. Add the grated yam to the egg mixture and whisk well to incorporate. Next, add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and mix to combine all the ingredients. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour to relax any gluten that might have formed. While the pancake batter rests, prepare the remaining ingredients.

Make the Tempura Batter and create the tenkasu. In another bowl, add the cored and finely sliced Napa cabbage, green onion, carrot, and pickled sushi ginger. After an hour, add the prepared vegetables to the pancake batter along with the ice-cold Brown Ale. Use your fingers to mix all the ingredients together well. This is also when other ingredients can be added to the batter. Try a quarter to a half pound of prepared calamari, shrimp, scallops, oysters, crabmeat, sliced smoked sausages, duck confit, shredded pork, etc.

Okonomiyaki can be cooked a few different ways. Traditionally it’s prepared on a teppan or large iron griddle. I prefer a 6- to 8- inch nonstick sauté pan, as the sides of the savory pancake will also crisp up, creating more crust in the final product. Add the oil to a preheated pan over medium heat. Pour roughly a third of the batter to the hot pan, until it reaches about two-thirds up the sides. Lightly press the batter down, making sure the bottom of the pancake is in full contact with the hot surface. Eliminate any air pockets. Cook for 5 – 6 minutes or until a golden brown, crispy crust forms. Gently shake the pan or use a spatula to flip the pancake over. Lightly press it down again and cook an additional 5 – 7 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board or serving plate and repeat with the remaining batter.

Once the pancake is done, it can be garnished much like a pizza. Add different toppings to create extra texture, pops of flavor, and visual appeal. First, use a squeeze bottle to drizzle ribbons of Okonomiyaki Sauce, or brush it on to make a sticky canvas for the rest of the ingredients. Drizzle the mayonnaise in a perpendicular pattern to the Okonomiyaki Sauce. Next, sprinkle the pancake with the green onion and pickled ginger. Then, evenly coat the top with bonito flakes, trying to keep them upright. Finish garnishing with the seaweed powder, caviar (if using), mixed sesame seeds, and a light dusting of white pepper. Serve.

Tempura Batter
The crispy fried bits of tempura batter that separate from whatever is in the fryer are crucial to Okonomiyaki. Those little crunchy bits are called tenkasu or agedama in Japanese. You can buy them in many Asian or Japanese markets, but they’re easy to make, and a tempura batter is a good recipe to have in your arsenal.

Makes: 1 cup of batter and 2 cups of Tenkasu

1/2 cup cake or pastry flour (low protein)
1 large egg, cold
1/2 cup beer, such as a Pilsner or Brown Ale, ice cold

Sift the cake flour into a bowl, then make a well in the center. Crack an egg in the center and whisk until it’s an even color and lightly frothy. Add the ice-cold beer to the egg and mix, slowly incorporating the surrounding flour until a smooth batter is created. Be careful not to over-mix the batter, which will form gluten and create a tougher finished product. Fill a second bowl (about the same size, if not slightly bigger) with crushed ice, enough water to create a small pool, and a tablespoon of salt. Place the first bowl over the second to keep the batter as cold as possible. Prepare the other ingredients and bring the fry oil to temperature while the batter rests for 30 minutes.

Heat a frying oil (peanut, rice bran, or another high smoke-point oil) to 350°F. Ready a skimmer and a plate or sheet tray covered with paper towels. Carefully drizzle the tempura batter over the surface of the hot oil with a soup spoon to prevent splashing (and possible burns). Add 2 – 3 spoonfuls per batch. The batter will form beads. Using the skimmer, break up any ropes of batter and cook on all sides, until golden brown. Scoop the beads onto the paper towel-lined tray and repeat the process, using all the batter. Cool completely and use immediately or store in an airtight jar.

Prepare chopped carrots, slices of yam, broccoli flowerets, snap peas, parsnip or eggplant ribbons, other vegetables, or peeled and deveined shrimp. Dredge in tempura batter. Deep fry in 350°F oil for 3 – 4 minutes until they float and turn golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

Dashi is basically a dried and smoked bonito broth infused with kombu, a seaweed rich in glutamates or umami. This Japanese staple is used to make miso soup, ramen, and many other dishes.

Makes: 1 quart

4 cup water, filtered if needed
1 oz dried kombu
1 oz katsuobushi or dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes

Place the water and kombu in a pot over low heat. When the liquid comes to a simmer, turn off the heat and add the bonito, stirring to infuse it fully into the broth. Allow it to sit for 5 – 10 minutes, then strain, discarding the solids or use them to make a second runnings and repeat the process. Cooled dashi will last in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Okonomiyaki Sauce
An umami-rich sauce, perfect for a Savory Japanese Pancake or deep-fried tempura.

just over 1/2 cup

3 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp malt vinegar
1 tbsp organic sugar
1 tsp soy sauce

In a bowl, whisk all of the ingredients together. Transfer to a squeeze bottle or jar. Refrigerated Okonomiyaki Sauce will keep for up to a month.