Of all the Japanese culinary passions, okonomiyaki has been the slowest to be embraced by Americans. The name means “cook what you like,” and what you like is a gooey pancake that can contain all sorts of added ingredients that, back in Japan, you often get to pick. The choices runs to squid, shrimp, bean sprouts, corn, pork, natto (fermented soybeans), bean curd, cabbage, bacon, enoki mushrooms, green onions, pickled ginger, egg, Velveeta (!), and even ramen noodles. The savory pancake originated in Osaka, but became popular all over the country in cafes and street carts. Typically, the top of the finished pancake is squiggled with mayo and doctored Worcestershire sauce, then sprinkled with bonito flakes and sometimes a seaweed powder called aonori.
In the okonomiyai restaurants in Japan called okonomiyaki-ya, diners also get to cook the flapjacks themselves at their tables. A hot plate, pair of spatulas (one large for turning, one small for patting), and batter are provided for that purpose, along with the add-ins requested. You mix, pour, sizzle, squish, and flip. This is a jolly participatory meal, and it’s harder than you think. The consistency of the batter with all the inclusions means it’s very hard to know when to pat, shape, and flip the thing. If you cut into the finished product and liquid oozes out, you’ve failed miserably at your task.
In the late 80s and early 90s we had a place near Grand Central (where many restaurants aimed at Japanese businesspeople were located) named Chibo that specialized in okonomiyaki. The address was 7 East 44th Street, and the room was high ceilinged and relentlessly dark brown, maybe mimicking the color of the pancake. Each of the dozen or so tables had an electric burner and a flat teppan griddle. Japanese patrons were allowed to cook the pancakes themselves, but Westerners ignominiously had to let the waitresses cook their okonomiyaki for them. These gals mixed in the ingredients, poured the pancakes, and kept complete control of the spatulas at all times, taking them along when they left the table.