I rarely write about food, which is quite surprising, given that I am a huge foodie and that stuffing my face is usually an integral part of my worldly travels. The truth is, that I don’t have the time to start YAFB (yet another food blog), particularly since I have the opportunity to eat so many wonderful things in my every day life and could never find the time or patience to capture all of the good bits. But my friends and colleagues will often tell you that I am the the go-to guy when it comes to finding new and interesting cuisine, which is probably fueled by my unofficial part time job researching good restaurants, a large collection of food and travel-related books and my personal addiction to FoodTV. So imagine my wonder (and shame!) when I was encountered with an Okonomiyaki restaurant in London – a type of Japanese cuisine that I never even knew existed.
My friend had walked by the small outpost of Abeno, hidden just off of Leicester Square on Great Newport Street in London, and suggested we give it a try.
Sitting at the Okonomiyaki at Abeno in London. It is usually a good sign when you are the only white person sitting in an Asian restaurant…
Wikipedia describes Okonomiyaki like this:
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き?) is a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked” (cf. yakitori and yakisoba). Okonomiyaki is mainly associated with Kansai or Hiroshima areas of Japan, but is widely available throughout the country. Toppings and batters tend to vary according to region.Kansai (Osaka)-style okonomiyaki is the predominant style of the dish, found throughout most of Japan. The batter is made of flour, grated yam, water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, meat (generally pork or bacon), octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, kimchi, mochi or cheese. Okonomiyaki is sometimes compared to an omelette or a pancake and may be referred to as “a Japanese pancake”, or even “Osaka soul food”.
Most okonomiyaki restaurants are set up as grill-it-yourself establishments, where the server produces a bowl of raw ingredients that the customer mixes and grills at tables fitted with teppan, or special hotplates. They may also have a diner style counter where the cook will prepare the dish right in front of the customers.
In Osaka (the largest city in the Kansai region), where this dish is said to have originated, okonomiyaki is prepared much like a pancake. The batter and other ingredients are fried on both sides on either a hot plate (teppan) or a pan using metal spatulas that are later used to slice the dish when it has finished cooking. Cooked okonomiyaki is topped with ingredients that include okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter), aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (fish flakes), Japanese mayonnaise and pickled ginger (beni shoga).
The entire experience is interesting, to say the least. You are presented with a number of choices for your Okonomiyaki, which looks like an omelette and does, actually, include some egg, but not as the base ingredient – I suppose the single egg is used only to bind the other ingredients together. The main base this concoction is, surprisingly, finely shredded Chinese cabbage. The ingredients are brought to your place at the bar and mixed in front of you, creating an unappetizing glob that is cooked right there:
The blob is shaped into form and topped with whatever it is you’ve asked for (in this case, sliced pork):
It then sits there for a good ten minutes, cooking away as you munch on some starters, such as these rice balls with a tart plum filling:
The resulting product looks like this:
This is a photo of my cabbage-based combination of kimchee, chiles, pork and a bunch of other stuff.
You are then presented with a variety of toppings, including something I would consider a “Japanese bar-b-que sauce” and shavings of smoked tuna, which tastes more like bacon than anything that could have come from the sea.
All in all, quite tasty, if I do say so myself!
And while Abeno claims to be the only Okonomiyaki place in London, I did discover that there are more than a few joints serving it up in New York City…right under my nose all this time and I’ve never discovered it!