After hitting Akita for a day, I decided that I needed to spend most of Wednesday riding the shinkansen so I could get back to the place where I was an exchange student: Osaka. After practically killing a few innocent bystanders by dragging a ton of luggage from one train to another in Tokyo, I was beginning to consider whether my travel plans were as brilliant as I had initially thought they were.
However, soon after arriving in Osaka, I sat down to have my favorite food in the entire world, and suddenly the seven hour train trip was worth it.
Okonomiyaki (literal meaning: okonomi = things you prefer, yaki = fried) are available all over Japan, but as a staple of the Osaka culinary experience, no one does it better than the locals. Sure, some Hiroshima people may argue that their version of the dish (which comes with Yakisoba) is better, but we Osaka types know the truth: if the Okonomiyaki itself isn't high quality, the whole dish is missing out on something special.
(If any Hiroshima people are reading this: I like the Hiroshima style too, and I'm just teasing you, okay? Don't leave me any death threats please )
The place I happened upon was a little hole-in-the-wall joint that had about 7 tables. The typical Okonomiyaki place has a giant teppan (a flat grill - think "teppanyaki") in the center of your table. Typically the restaurant gives you two options: the restaurant makes you an Okonomiyaki and sets it on the grill for you, or you have the option of making it yourself. I picked the second option and quickly set to work.
The restaurant brings you two things: whatever meat/extras you order, and a cup containing the main ingredients of the dish: sliced cabbage, a liquid base with flour and yamaimo (literally "mountain potato", a long potato that produces a gooey, disgusting looking white substance when grated that gives the Okonomiyaki a somewhat lighter flavor), sliced cured ginger, an egg, and a few extra things tossed in for flavoring. You mix up the stuff in the cup and dump about 2/3 of the contents onto the grill to form a pancake-esque round shape. At the same time, you fry the other stuff you ordered. I ordered beef, so as my food was cooking, I set the beef next to the Okonomiyaki to cook. Some of the other toppings available include pork, squid, mochi (soft rice cake), cheese, shrimp, and a variety of other stuff - the variety possible can be a bit mind boggling.
After you set the mostly-cooked meat onto the okonomiyaki, you put the rest of the batter on top and check to make sure the underside is cooked before using the two paddles the restaurant gives you to flip it over. After cooking both sides to a golden brown, you choose one of the brown sauces that the restaurant provides to coat the top of your Okonomiyaki. The sauce flavors come in sweet and spicy varieties (sweet is highly recommended for those of you who've never had the dish before). After that, you have the option of adding Japanese mayonaise, nori shavings known as "aonori", and bonito flakes, a light fish flake that (because of the heat from the grill) makes your Okonomiyaki look as if it were alive.
Regardless of whether you have the restaurant make the Okonomiyaki or you make it yourself, you eat them the same way: straight from the grill. You take a small spatula, cut off the piece you want, and eat it off the spatula (or with chopsticks from a small saucer you set the piece on).
The taste? Sweet, fluffy... like a pancake that was recreated for meal purposes. Some people compare it to pizza, but considering how the meal is prepared (not to mention the lack of a "sauce" base), it really has more in common with pancakes.
But don't take my word for it. Just add it to your list of culinary experiences you must have in Japan. You won't be disappointed.