Updated: Jun 20, 2018
Beyond sushi and ramen
There are some truly wonderful and amazing foods to experience in Japan. My first time visiting I had no idea what to try or even how to order at many places. It became an exciting but daunting task to try new things. Everyone knows about sushi and ramen, but what else is there? Upon returning to Japan for a study abroad, my friends would order many things for me and never tell me what I was eating. To this day, I still don't know what all the dishes were. Often, the presentation of the dish was as beautiful as the taste was rich and delicious. Japan has a way with food and making it its own. That being said, lets take a look at some of the fantastic foods you can find in Japan.
One such food that is a staple in Japanese cuisine is okonomiyaki. You can find this food everywhere and in many styles. It's a popular festival food too, often sharing the same sauce used on takoyaki (octopus balls) which makes a great transition of flavor from one to the next. While it is often described as a Japanese pancake, I don't feel this is a good way to describe it. It's certainly not something I would want to eat for breakfast.
Styles of Okonomiyaki
There are a few styles of okonomiyaki and the ingredients used will vary depending on what kind you want or the restaurant you go to. The two main styles are Kansai (Osaka) style and Hiroshima style. The biggest difference is in the preparation. Osaka style mixes the ingredients together before cooking, while Hiroshima style builds it layer by layer. This can have a large impact on taste and texture. Basic ingredients can include shredded cabbage, eggs, some type of meat (usually pork) or seafood, and maybe green onions. However you may also find cheese, oysters, octopus, or other vegetables. Often topped with generous amounts of okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise (I promise its good), seaweed flakes, and Bonito flakes. Experimenting to find your favorite can be a lot of fun. Let's look closer at my favorite, Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.
Hiroshima okonomiyaki is served over the top of a bed of noodles like udon or soba. The ingredients are added in layers at different intervals as it's cooked. The batter is first spread out in a round bed where the cabbage and other ingredients are added on top, layer by layer. A little batter is poured on top to help hold it together when it is flipped and cooked from the other side. During this time, noodles mixed with a little sauce are cooked along side of an egg that has been spread in a circle. The okonomiyaki is then placed on the egg and flipped onto the bed of noodles. This is when the sauce is added by drenching the whole thing. Some places will let you finish the toppings yourself and others will do it for you. Often mayonnaise is laid out in a grid on top of the sauce, then it is powdered with seaweed and topped with bonito flakes.
Typically there is a cooking surface at your table or the place you sit where it is placed when finished. You are given paddles to cut and serve it yourself. A single one can be more than enough food for one person. I always feel stuffed after, but I am always satisfied. My first experience with okonomiyaki was when I was a student at Hiroshima University, so maybe I am a little partial to Hiroshima style. It is still one of my favorite foods here in Japan and after learning how to make it myself, it is something I enjoy making with and for my friends and family. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect the first few dozen times you try to make it, flipping it without sending everything everywhere can be a bit of an art form. (speaking from experience)
If you come to Japan for a visit, to study abroad, or to live here, then you should definitely add this item to your list of foods to try. It is usually helpful to be able to read a little hiragana and katakana if you want to modify or ask for toppings, because I have found few okonomiyaki restaurants that give English menus or have pictures to point at. Don't worry if you cant read or speak Japanese though, just ask for Hiroshima Okonomiyaki and let them make it for you. I am sure I am about to curse myself here, but I have never had a bad experience yet with this food.