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Neighborhood streets in downtown Chicago move with specific rhythms. Michigan Avenue hums to the tune of retail consumerism: sidewalks bustle with tourists window shopping along the Magnificent Mile and locals in-store shopping for Hermes bags, jewelry, Needless Markup glamour, and Nordstrom shoes. Walk a block over to St. Claire and the song is a business-like drone: blue-scrubbed doctors, nurses, blue-suited office workers, and bleary-eyed medical students. A few blocks across State to Dearborn, sidewalk storefronts reflect ballads about ordinary life and routine errands: Kathy’s Cleaner, the Post Office, Bank of America, the X5 barbershop. Walk toward the La Salle Street Bridge and you’ll hear the beat of wholesale commerce at the Chicago Merchandise Mart (so large it has its own zip code), home to architectural/design vendors and showrooms.
Weekend early-morning streets are quiet—sidewalks empty, construction sites silent, cranes unmoving, taxis still in line at the airport, city dogs and toddlers asleep, Starbuck windows just beginning to fog over; but by 9:00 am, black puffy coats and backpacks cruise along the sidewalk ready to eat.
Weekend routines revolve around food. City residents love brunch, a chance to sleep off Friday night and celebrate weekend freedom with biscuits and gravy or chicken and waffles, washed down with a little hair of the dog. By 2:00, it’s time to eat again: tacos at XOCO, nachos at Rockbottom, jazz and wings at Buddy Guy’s, Lou Malnati’s for deep-dish pizza, beers and dogs at Mom’s, a burger at the Billy Goat Tavern, or Irish whiskey at Fado. Last Saturday afternoon, my choice was Ramen-san for okonomiyaki, served on Saturdays before 3:00.
When I got there at 1:30, the dining room was packed and the bar in full swing. A sweet hostess showed me to a table, gave me a menu, and disappeared. As I slipped off my puffy coat and looked around, I noticed that I was one of two people in the room over 30. I also counted eight out of ten customers holding their phone in their hand, looking down at the phone in their hand, or sharing what was on the phone in their hand. No one actually talks on phones anymore.
But I digress, I was there for the okonomiyaki. I have had a better one in Seattle, but this version, served in a bowl with pork belly and a fried egg, hit my savory-pancake spot. I ordered a bowl of “tonkotsu » traditional broth, chashu, molten egg” for two to go, bundled up, and walked home.
Osaka-style Okonomiyaki (Savory Japanese pancake)
1 cup okonomiyaki flour, regular flour can be substituted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
2/3 cup water (if you use nagaimo root, omit water)
1/2-3/4 cup peeled, grated nagaimo root – tuberous vegetable, similar to a potato found in most Asian markets. Authentic but not necessary. Peeled, grated nagaimo is starchy and somewhat gluey, with a slightly sweet taste and crunchy texture, used mostly as a binder.
3 large eggs
1 cup shredded green cabbage
1/2 pound pork belly or bacon slices
Tenkasu (bits of fried tempura batter, available in Asian markets)
Shrimp with green onion
Beef with grilled onions, and kimchi
Pork with green peas, and bean sprouts
Octopus, crab, or squid
Cooked Yakisoba noodles
4 tablespoons ketchup, 3 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon soy sauce or oyster sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar. Change proportions to suit your taste. This sauce can also be purchased ready-made at Asian grocery stores.
Bonito (fish flakes)
Green dried seaweed (aonori)
Step 1: Combine okonomiyaki flour, baking powder, salt, sugar in a mixing bowl. Mix well.
Step 2: Trim one end off the nagaimo root. With a sharp knife, peel off the light brown skin. Grate about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of nagaimo into the bowl. Try not to grate your knuckles; the nagaimo has a very slimy consistency. Add water or grated nagaimo to flour mixture. Refrigerate for one hour.
Step 3: Thinly slice about 1 cup of green cabbage.
Step 4: Add raw eggs, grated cabbage, and tempura scraps to flour/nagaimo mixture. Add your choice of fillings and mix well.
Step 5: Heat a large, flat skillet or griddle. Evenly spread 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil on the surface. When oil shimmers, spread okonomiyaki batter in a circle, 6 inches across and 3/4 inch thick. You will get several servings out of the batter, so don’t use all the batter at once. Don’t make the pancake too big. You will flip it twice, so don’t make the pancake bigger than your spatula.
Place pork belly or bacon slices on top of okonomiyaki and cook covered for 7-10 minutes.
Step 6: When pancake is browned on one side, flip the okonomiyaki and cook the other side for 7 to 9 minutes. Flip it over again, and cook for 3 minutes more.
Step 7: Remove the okonomiyaki to a plate and with a pastry brush, brush the brown okonomiyaki sauce over the surface. Take the bottle of Kewpie and squeeze lines of mayonnaise across the surface in a criss-cross pattern; it should look like lattice. Sprinkle about 2 to 3 tablespoons of fish flakes and aonori on top. Place a tablespoon of pickled ginger in the middle.