Longtime Dinner Party Download listeners might know Brendan’s feelings about brunch. In fact, he and Julia Stiles had a bonding moment over their mutual hatred of it. And yet, he has to admit even he likes a pancake every once in awhile. So why we have to stop eating them at noon?
In Japan, they eat pancakes all the time, but they’re called “okonomiyaki,” and they’re savory. David Senn, a British ex-pat, and Diana Tam, a Japanese-American, fell in love with these things when they lived in Tokyo.
This week, the two opened a food stall in Manhattan called Osaka Grub. The restaurant features a burger with an okonomiyaki bun! Brendan met up with the two to learn all about this savory treat and what inspired them to create their inventive burger. First, he asked Diana to tell him what exactly in these cakes.
Diana Tam: It’s a savory pancake. There’s cabbage, nagaimo, which is a sticky Japanese potato, and it’s grated in to bind everything together.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that like yam?
Diana Tam: Yeah, I guess it would be a yam. But it’s a Japanese root vegetable that’s sticky in nature. There’s also cake flour. We don’t use all-purpose flour, so that it’s light and fluffy. The classic version has, generally, shrimp and pork belly strips on top of it.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And what does the name mean?
Diana Tam: It means “as you like it.” So you can put pretty much anything you want on there.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Are you doing a classic pancake, or what do you put in your pancake?
Diana Tam: We are doing our classic version. So, that one has the shrimp and the pork belly strips. We’re also doing a fully vegetarian version as well. So, instead of using fish stock — that’s dashi — we’re just using a seaweed stock. And there’s shiitake mushrooms and miso in that one.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you remember the first time you had one of these pancakes?
David Senn: Oh, yeah. There’s a very famous place to have it, world famous area called Tsukishima. It’s found in Tsukishima Market, actually.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Is it notorious for street food generally, or this pancake?
Diana Tam: The one in Tokyo, in particular, Tsukishima, is actually more famous for monjayaki, and that’s actually like a non-fluffy version of this pancake. It’s more just, like… more liquidy.
David Senn: Has a very distinct appearance.
Diana Tam: Yeah. So, we weren’t sure if that would be very popular with Americans.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Really? It’s runny and… it looks like vomit, is that what you’re saying?
David Senn: Essentially, yeah. Well, it’s not a nice way to describe it, but it’s a way to describe it.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You guys are both so polite. It took me a while to pick up on that. So, this food, is it dinner, or is it late-night snack food?
David Senn: It’s definitely not breakfast. But it’s a lunchtime and a dinner thing. It’s very common for a family to get around a teppan, the whole plate, and then cook the okonomiyaki themselves in a restaurant. We obviously don’t have the space to do that here, but we try to bring it as much as we can, the traditional experience.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And where are you from originally?
Diana Tam: I’m from Queens, New York.
Brendan Francis Newnam: When did you first have one of these pancakes?
Diana Tam: Well, actually, I first had it in New York. I’m not sure if that restaurant’s still around, but it’s called Raku. It’s like, a izakaya in Midtown. I actually really liked okonomiyaki before, and I was really intrigued by it from reading a manga called “Ranma 1/2.” One of the characters is an okonomiyaki maker. So, I’ve been wanting to try it ever since.
Brendan Francis Newnam: The hero or the protagonist is a pancake maker?
Diana Tam: It’s actually one of the characters. The protagonist is actually a man who can turn into a woman.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That sounds like it’d be harder to pull off in a food stall. OK. So, part of the reason I’m here is because you’ve decided to Americanize this pancake. So, how did you arrive at this synthesis of okonomiyaki and burger?
David Senn: I wanted to put cheese in it. I think that cheese is a very powerful tool. And, also, some of the sauces have a good synergy with an American burger. So, the okonomiyaki sauce that we put on, which is a brown, kind of sticky, brown Worcestershire sauce kind of flavor.
I think it blends very well with a burger, and it’s cute. Like, you kind of want to eat it because it looks cute and it’s small. It’s a bite. Okonomiyaki itself can be kind of heavy, but the slider, you can have it and you can have your fries. It’s a small bite.
Brendan Francis Newnam: OK, let’s take a look at this. I see the burger, the cheeseburger, and I see the pancake, but there’s also some interesting sauce and some other interesting colors in there.
Diana Tam: So, as Dave mentioned before, there’s that — what Japanese people just called “sauce.” It’s like, a little bit barbecue-y, Worcestershire-y. That’s the brown-colored sauce. There’s also Japanese mayo there.
There’s also pickled ginger on that, and also, seaweed flakes that are called aonori. And also, the best part, in my opinion, is the bonito flakes. Bonito is a preserved, dried fish, and it’s just shaved, and these pieces just usually dance on top of the okonomiyaki. We add a little bit of this in the middle, and it really creates a nice smoky, umami taste.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, I’m going to check it out. [Starts eating the slider.] Oh, my goodness! That is as good as I was dreaming about when I first read about it. So, as someone who kind of keeps an eye on food trends, the Ramen Burger kind of blew up. Was that on your radar? You’re thinking, like, “Hey, we have something that can beat boring ramen!”
Diana Tam: Yeah. I would say, like, the ramen burger is nice. There’s a lot of different textures in there. But, yeah, I think ours incorporates the soul of okonomiyaki a little bit more.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Japanese soul with an American cheeseburger in it.
Diana Tam: Yeah, American soul in there, as well.