01 MayIssen Yoshoku: The Original Okonomiyaki

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So as you may have guessed I am a pretty big fan of okonomiyaki. What is not to love about it?
The shear variety of ingredients. You can almost do no wrong with okonomiyaki. The name means as you like it after all. Table top cooking, the communal aspect of sharing it with friends and family. The amazing sauces. okonomiyaki is just so yummy!

I wouldn’t say I am an okonomiyaki connoisseur. But I have been around the grill once or twice.  I know the basics. I can tell you the different between a Kanto and Hiroshima okonomiyaki and I was often seen on Monja Street in Tsukushima Tokyo enjoying the various monjayaki restaurants. I had never really thought about where okonomiyaki originated from.

According to wiki:

“Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き?) is a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”. Okonomiyaki is mainly associated with Kansai or Hiroshima areas of Japan, but is widely available throughout the country. Toppings and batters tend to vary according to region.” .

What this doesn’t tell us though is that okonomiyaki, is consider to be part of yoshoku or Western cuisine like omurice, curry, nikujyaga and  other dishes. However unlike omurice, curry or nikujyaga which we can easily find comparable dishes in western cuisine.  There is nothing that I can think of that is  like okonomiyaki in the west. I know that okonomiyaki has often been described as “Japanese pizza” or “pancake.” But personally I feel that these names do a disservice to okonomiyaki. These names fail to describe okonomiyaki clearly and actually makes it sound less appealing to people who have never heard of it before. It is just okonomiyaki to me. So what’s the deal? Where did okonomiyaki come from?

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It turns out as Japan entered the Taisho Period (early 1900′s) people became more affluent and the popularity of Western culture finally reached the masses. But western food in the eyes of the common 1900′s Japanese person was anything made from wheat flour. Street vendors capitalizing on this new interest in western cuisine would whip up a simple batter of water and wheat flour  and make thin crepe like thing with it on an open air griddle. Once the crepe thing was cooked it would be filled with a simple savory filling such as fresh green onions and katsuo bushi. Then it would be rolled up covered with the classic tare sauce. This crepe thing is what passed was sold as yoshoku or western food for one yen. Hence the name one yen western food or Issen Yoshoku. It was fast, it was cheap and it was “foreign.” People loved it.

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Competition was fierce though and vendors were always trying to outdo each other. Issen yoshoku quickly developed first in Tokyo. Then morphed into monjayaki. Whereas issen yoshoku consisted of just flour and water  Worcestershire sauce (another recent import from the West during this time) was also added to make it more “western” and tasty as well as cabbage and other things to give it more body.

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The popularity of monjayaki quickly spread to other major cities like Osaka and Japan where monjayaki then morphed into what we now know as okonomiyaki today. Monjayaki being too messy received another transformation. The Worcestershire sauce was left out and instead tororo and dashi stock was added  causing the batter to become nice and thick and solidify when cooked unlike the runnier batters of monjayaki and issen yoshoku. Causing the simple one yen snack of the Taisho period to become a full-fledged meal/dinning experience by the 1950s.

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As would be expected issen yoshoku fell by the wayside as more exciting options became available. Now it virtually non-existent in Japan. However issen yoshoku is still out there and by chance it is still possible to find.

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I happen to find one such place in Asuke. I Just had to give it a try!

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Yeah I am glad this evolved into something that tasted much better. ^_^

Leave a Reply

2 Responses to “Issen Yoshoku: The Original Okonomiyaki”

  1. Ketochan says:

    I loved this post! Okonomiyaki is my absolute favorite Japanese dish I’ve tried and/or made, so I really enjoyed learning more about it! However, I was wondering about something you said: “Street vendors capitalizing on this new interest in western cuisine would whip up a simple batter of water and wheat flour and make thin crepe like thing with it on an open air griddle. Once the crepe thing was cooked it would be filled with a simple savory filling such as fresh green onions and katsuo bushi. Then it would be rolled up covered with the classic tare sauce. This crepe thing is what passed was sold as yoshoku or western food for one yen.” This description, and the pictures of the griddle being used sound and look just like crêpes and crêpe vendors in France. Are French crêpes the original and direct inspiration for okonomiyaki, or was it merely invented as an attempt to “make-up” a “Western” dish, as I inferred from your post?

    • rose says:

      Hello!

      When writing this post I had the same sort of questions. However after a bit more research it is hard to find a direct link between French crepes and the origins of Okonomiyaki. The problem lies with the fact that when Japan finally decided to open their doors to the world at the end of 200 years of isolation the whole world came. Japan was suddenly bombarded with a slue of nations wanting to do business, set up trade, secure ports etc. While crepes are most like the issen yoshoku the fact is that there are many crepe like things found in many different cuisines. Pancakes from Germany/America and the Netherlands, garbanzo bean crepes from Italy. Even China has those little pancakes things you eat with Peking Duck. The truth is that wheat was nothing new to Japan. There were udon noodles and somen noodles before Japan opened up. Wheat though just wasn’t as popular as rice until the opening of Japan and Japanese people associated wheat products with the west and thus the explosion and popularity of issen yoshoku.

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