Okonomiyaki

A few weeks ago, I talked about some of my favorite Japanese street foods. However, I left one out that is extremely popular both on the street and in restaurants across Japan. Okonomiyaki is a fried pancake, usually composed of batter and cabbage, which can have any number of toppings and mix-ins. This is reflected in its very name; okonomi literally means “to your liking” and yaki means “cooked or fried.”

Okonomiyaki

Via Flickr

While you can find okonomiyaki all over Japan, like ramen, the styles and toppings vary greatly from region to region. It’s most popular in the Kansai area of Japan (around Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto) and Hiroshima.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki from Osaka, via Flickr.

Like takoyaki, the pancake batter in okonomiyaki is not sweet. It’s filled with a number of savory ingredients, such as octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, or kimchi.

Just some of the ingredients you can put in okonomiyaki. Green onions, pickled ginger, egg, mushroom, and pork. Via Flickr.

Just some of the ingredients you can put in okonomiyaki. Green onions, cabbage, pickled ginger, egg, mushroom, and pork. Via Flickr.

In Japan, okonomiyaki is typically served at restaurants that only specialize in this dish. There is usually a large griddle at each table or in front of the customer at the bar counter, where the chef or server will cook the okonomiyaki for you.

Okonomiyaki

An okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima. Via Flickr.

There are also many restaurants where you cook it yourself (like I tried), but I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know what you’re doing, or go with someone who has cooked it before!

okonomiyaki

Our personal grill at a cook-it-yourself okonomiyaki restaurant

First, customers order what ingredients they would like in their pancake and the server or chef brings out a bowl of raw batter, vegetables, and seafood or meat. Then, everything is mixed together and placed on the hot griddle in a pancake-like shape.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Mixing the ingredients

Okonomiyaki

Once one side is cooked, you use large metal spatulas to flip the pancake over. This is usually the hardest part of cooking okonomiyaki, and without patience or practice, it can end up breaking apart.

Okonomiyaki

Definitely the hardest part of cooking okonomiyaki. It took us a few tries to keep everything together (but it still tasted delicious!)

Once the pancake is cooked all the way through, you can add traditional toppings. First is okonomiyaki sauce (basically the same as takoyaki sauce), then Japanese mayo, katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes), and dried seaweed. Okonomiyaki is then usually broken into bite-sized pieces and left on the cooking surface, so that each piece is hot and eaten right off the griddle.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki sauce (brown glaze), dried seaweed (green flakes), katsuobushi (brown flakes), and Japanese mayo (white lines). Via Flickr.

This type of okonomiyaki (Kansai style) is the most popular and can be found all across Japan. In comparison, the Hiroshima style has layered ingredients rather than mixed. The batter is cooked like a thin crepe and the other ingredients are added as toppings, rather than mixed into the batter. Yakisoba or udon noodles are also an extremely popular layer, topped with a fried egg and a liberal amount of okonomiyaki sauce.

Okonomiyaki

Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Via Flickr.

While this dish is extremely popular in Japan, I haven’t been able to find it at all in the US. Do you know where I could find some?

In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to try cooking it myself. Just One Cookbook, one of my favorite Japanese food blogs, has a great okonomiyaki recipe. Try it out, and let me know what you think!

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Japanese Food Blogs

Have you ever tried cooking Japanese food yourself at home? Now, I know sushi looks excruciatingly complicated, but there are so many other types of Japanese food that are easy to make in your own kitchen! Here in Boston, I constantly try to recreate the meals I enjoyed in Tokyo, such as tomato ramen, Japanese curry, and gyozas.

Homemade Ramen

My own homemade ramen!

I’ve found that many people are intimidated by unfamiliar ingredients, particularly ones that need to be purchased in Asian grocery stores. However, with the right recipes or inspiration, Japanese food is easy to make and extremely delicious.

On today’s Food Feature Friday, I’m divulging from my usual routine and featuring a few of my favorite Japanese food bloggers. So what are you waiting for? Get cooking!

1. Just One Cookbook

Just One CookbookJust One Cookbook is a Japanese food blog written by Nami, a Japanese native who now lives in San Francisco with her family. She posts traditional Japanese recipes that she makes for her family, from sushi and bento boxes to Japanese deserts. Each of her recipes is extremely easy to follow, and include professional photographs that will make your mouth water.

Oyakodon by Namiko Chen- Just One Cookbook

Oyakodon by Namiko Chen- Just One Cookbook

 What really sets Just One Cookbook apart is her explanation of many traditional Japanese ingredients. Nami goes through typical condiments, sauces, and essential foods that are common in Japanese households, but may stump a casual chef. She even explains many Japanese cooking techniques, including wrapping dumplings, preparing seafood for cooking, and even creating decorative garnishes.

Whether you’re looking for a creative bento box for your kids or a delicious recipe for dinner tonight, Just One Cookbook has you covered. Sign up for her emailing list and get new recipes straight in your inbox, with first access to food giveaways as well.

2. Sushi Day

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 10.51.46 AMSushi Day is a great resource for the aspiring sushi chef, or someone looking for new sushi recipes to try. The blog is written by Allison, a web developer from California who also has a passion for sushi. Sushi Day offers everything from simple nigiri (one piece of fish over rice) to inventive maki, such as Honey Green Tea Tilapia rolls, Unicorn rolls, and even rolls using leftover Thanksgiving food!

Lemon Drop Roll by Allison Day- Sushi Day

Lemon Drop Roll by Allison Day- Sushi Day

While Sushi Day is not a blog for beginners, as many of the recipes include sophisticated ingredients or require a few sushi skills, it’s still a great blog to check out. Even if you’re not a sushi chef, the great pictures will make you want to become one. Sushi Day also features tutorials, reviews, and photo features of Allison’s travels in both California and in Japan.

Porki Maki by Allison Day- Sushi Day

Porki Maki by Allison Day- Sushi Day

3. Luxeat

Luxeat

Although this blog isn’t about cooking and recipes, Luxeat is one of my absolute favorite foodie blogs to follow. It’s written by Aiste, a top fashion model who is also passionate about food and travel. Luxeat follows Aiste’s adventures travelling around the world, and the amazing fine cuisine she eats wherever she goes. She’s been to France, Berlin, Spain, Hong Kong, London New York and more, and always has amazing photos documenting her experiences.

My favorite part about Luxeat, however, is her adventures in Japan. Aiste has been to some of the top (and most expensive!) restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. From the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza (made famous in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi) to the most expensive tempura in the world, Aiste has tried it all.

Luxeat is perfect for exploring some of the best high-end restaurants in Japan, especially since you’ll probably never get a chance to try them. Just be warned: your neighborhood sushi restaurant probably won’t cut it after seeing some of the masterpieces on this blog.

 That’s it for today’s Food Feature Friday! What are your favorite Japanese food blogs? I’m dying to read more!

How Large is Tokyo?

Via flickr

Via flickr

Just exactly how large is Tokyo?

A view from the 35th floor in a building near the Tokyo Sky Tree

The answer: mindbogglingly huge.

Whenever I try to explain how large Tokyo is, a lot of people have trouble imagining the vastness of a single city. They imagine other fairly dense cities like Boston or New York, where you can hop on a train or drive from edge to edge in just an hour (never mind traffic, of course!).

Via flickr

Tokyo, however, isn’t just a city. It’s the largest metropolis in the world.

A satellite view of Tokyo

A satellite view of Tokyo

By official counts, Tokyo is a mere 845 square miles and has a population of around 8.9 million people. However, if you consider the greater Tokyo Area, these numbers swell dramatically to an area of 5,200 square miles and a population of 40 million.

40. Million. People.

DSC_1815

Even when you live at the center of Tokyo, it’s sometimes hard to grasp that you’re living in one of the densest population areas in the world. The greater Tokyo area is only .036 of Japan’s total landmass, and yet accounts for 30% of Japan’s population (10% if you only count the 23 wards).

DSC_1841

Because 70% of Japan’s land is made of mountains and forest, a lot of people don’t appreciate how large and dense Tokyo actually is.

The picture below was taken from a helicopter and covers the greater Tokyo area- the 23 wards of Tokyo, areas west of Tokyo, and the surrounding prefectures Chiba and Saitama. (via Reddit)

The picture below was taken from a helicopter and covers the greater Tokyo area- the 23 wards of Tokyo, areas west of Tokyo, and the surrounding prefectures Chiba and Saitama. (via Reddit)

In comparison, this photo shows some of the major railways and landmarks of Tokyo. I went to school near the Tokyo Tower, and took the Yamanote line (green) for half of my commute. The Yamanote line is a circle around the center of Tokyo. Over 3.6 million people take the Yamanote line per day. In comparison, the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta International, USA) only services 240,000 people per day….that’s how many people in Tokyo use public transportation in a half hour. (via Reddit)

In comparison, this photo shows some of the major railways and landmarks of Tokyo. I went to school near the Tokyo Tower, and took the Yamanote line (green) for half of my commute. The Yamanote line is a circle around the center of Tokyo.
Over 3.6 million people take the Yamanote line per day. In comparison, the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta International, USA) only services 240,000 people per day….that’s how many people in Tokyo use public transportation in a half hour. (via Reddit)

 In Tokyo, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. But if you do rise above the urban sprawl, it’s absolutely amazing. Being in Tokyo can make you feel ridiculously small and insignificant, but at the same time, it’s enchanting. You’re part of something so much larger than yourself.

via Flickr

via Flickr

Nara Prefecture

Although I spent most of my time abroad in Tokyo, I had the amazing opportunity to check out other famous cities and areas in the Kansai region of Japan. One of my favorite places to go was Nara, a small prefecture and city about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and lends its name to the Nara period.

While the city itself isn’t much to look at, Nara is rich with history, particularly when it comes to temples. There are 8 temples, shrines, and ruins in Nara (known as the Nanto Shichi Dai-ji), which remained powerful even after the capital of Japan moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794.

Nara Park Nara Japan

However, my favorite part about Nara was…the deer.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Hi there!

Yes, that’s right. I said deer. According to local folklore, deer in Nara became sacred after one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine appeared on a nearby mountain riding a white deer. From then on, the deer were considered to be divine, and killing one was a capital offense punishable by death. Although the deer were stripped of their sacredness after World War II, they’re still considered National Treasures of Japan.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Whutcha doing?

Sika Deer Nara JapanToday, the miniature Shika deer can be found wandering around Nara Park and on some temple grounds. They’re extremely friendly and can be pet (although you might want to wash your hands afterwards).

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

You can also buy stacks of rice crackers from vendors along the road and feed the deer from your hands. Just be careful though- once the deer know you have food, they won’t leave you alone. I was stalked by a deer for a good 15 minutes, and when I wouldn’t keep feeding him, he head-butted me several times.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

This deer knows what’s up. He’s stalking one of the cracker vendors from behind.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Here’s my stalker deer friend literally moments before he head-butted me. Notice the sheer terror in my face.
Don’t worry though, I survived.

The deer are also extremely intelligent and have been known to wait at stoplights before crossing the street. You can even bow to the deer, and some will even bow back! I had an elderly Japanese couple laugh at me when I tried this, but once I walked away, I saw them trying the same exact thing.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Like I mentioned earlier, Nara is home to several important temples and shrines in Japan. I visited Todai-ji, a large Buddhist temple complex. Todai-ji is known for its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), which was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998.

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleDSC_5086

Todai-ji also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, which stands at almost 50 feet tall. The statue was completed in 752, has undergone several restorations and repairs since then.Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Guardian of the Great Buddha

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

At the Great Buddha Hall, visitors can see the many statues, purchase ema, and visit a small gift shop with deer paraphernalia.

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Japanese ema (prayer plaques)

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleNara may not be as exciting as downtown Tokyo, but it still has plenty to do. Check out ancient Japanese history, enjoy a relaxing day in the park, and pet some deer. Just make sure to bring some hand sanitizer, and plenty of money for rice crackers.

DSC_5103

I’m staying in the Kansai area for next weeks Travel Tuesday, so make sure to keep an eye out! Until then, thanks for reading and enjoy!