19 April 2009

Enny-Teen You Want!

Would you swallow this?

It's nagaimo (Japanese for "long potato," though nothing like a potato), the farmed substitute for yamaimo ("mountain potato," sometimes referred to in English as "Chinese mountain yam"). It is, in fact, nothing like potato or yam. Maybe a bit more like taro root in its starchiness, but that's about where the similarity ends. As soon as you put naga- or yama-imo to a grater, it turns into a slimy, viscous white goo.

Why would anyone want to produce such a substance? It's seminal in the production of okonomiyaki.

The above example is our first attempt from scratch at this classic Kansai-region specialty. Japanese stores worldwide sell special (expensive) mixes to make your own okonomiyaki batter, but if you can find the basic parts, it's just as easy - and tastier - to make it from scratch.

Naturally, you need about a half cup of the slimed nagaimo - as you're more likely to score with Monica Bellucci than find yamaimo in any western country. (I shall keep trying both... Guess which one is in France?) And you'll need a cup of dashi (bonito broth with kombu). Both widely available at Asian supermarkets. If that's too out of reach, you can always try grating actual taro or yam, and using fish broth, but, umm, good luck...

Into that, you mix lots of julienned cabbage, green onions or leek, and chopped pickled ginger (the bright red beni shoga if you can get it, but the pink/yellow sushi stuff can work if sliced into slivers and salted). Then, in what may seem a bit backward, add a beaten egg, and then flour - little by little - until it thickens into something a little more viscous than pancake dough.

Get a skillet all hot and greasy (preferably one that retains heat in the walls, like cast iron) and spread a large ladle of the cabbage-batter to form the size of a pancake, but careful not to reach the sides - you'll want room to flip this badboy.

As one side is cooking, you can add your choice of meat and lightly press it into the top side of the mixture. In Osaka it's usually sliced pork belly - like unsmoked bacon. To not go bankrupt in Paris (where a small amount of Asian-style pork belly costs more than just going out and buying dinner), we used lardon nature for the same taste in a different shape. Other good choices are squid, octopus, or small shrimp.

The name okonomiyaki literally means "cooked anything you like" - as you can throw in whatever meat (or non-meat, like mochi) as a topping. At my aunt's okonomiyaki-house in the Osaka suburbs, you can even get things as un-Japanese as cheese or pepperoni in it.

Back to the cooking, drip a little bit of the white stuff over your meat (er... a drizzle of batter) to act as an anti-stick agent, then flip over your okonomiyaki. This may require two spatulas or incredibly quick hands based on how heavy you've loaded the top side. Let it cook at least a few minutes, then flip it back over to look at it and ensure it all looks evenly crisped (but not completely browned).

Lay it into a plate, top with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) if you have it, criss-cross with mayonnaise (Kewpie brand if you have it), your choice of Japanese brown sauce (Kagome, Bulldog, you name it...), and again, if you have it, aonori (crumbled green seaweed). You can even use ketchup if you're so inclined.

It really isn't a lot of work. And the amounts we used are good for three full-size okonomiyaki. We had one Osaka-style each to start with... but the problem with this dish is it always leaves you wanting more. We decided to go a second round, making one more okonomiyaki to split.

This time we went Hiroshima style:

The main difference (besides the egg) is that there's a layer of fried yakisoba noodles on top. This makes it a moda-n ("modern") yaki. The fact that it's furthermore pressed thinner and then topped with egg is what makes it Hiroshima-style.

Of course, liking to work without a script, we tweaked it a bit. Instead of the usual egg crêpe on top, I did a simple fried egg. Having just bought a load of über-fresh eggs at the local marché today, there was no way an egg would be prepared in this house without a runny, drippy, gooey yolk. Also, I changed from the large flakes of katsuobushi to the smaller, finer ones to let more of the yakisoba texture through. Finally, there's the garnish of fresh green onions, which goes with the noodles' Worcestershire-y taste. (Because if you want to make a wicked quick yakisoba, fry some ramen noodles in ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.)

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