I’m starting a small series of plant-based Japanese recipes! This series is inspired by my travels in Japan and will feature my take on some of the amazing food I had there. Those who don’t take alliums or alcohol, fret not – I’ve crafted these recipes in a way where these are optional!
It’s very easy to find Japanese ingredients in Singapore from regular supermarkets like NTUC (often has a Japanese section) or speciality stores like Donki, Isetan and Meidi-ya. However, it’s not always easy to figure out what’s plant-based, as sometimes the translations aren’t accurate. I will advice to be a little more careful when buying packaged Japanese products here if you wish to avoid animal products.
Although Japan is not commonly known to be vegan-friendly, things are changing and there’s a surprising amount of accidentally plant-based foods. You can read more about my recommendations from Japan starting from here, or see my reviews of dishes and packaged foods here. The recipes in this series will mostly be of food I ate there as I have a good idea of what’s the benchmark! I don’t claim them to be authentic since I didn’t grow up eating Japanese food, but this is what worked for me. Try it out!
What is Okonomiyaki?
Okonomiyaki is a customisable savoury pancake popular all across Japan, but especially famous in 2 places – Osaka and Hiroshima. Okonomi means “as you like” and yaki means fried or stir-fried. There are 2 main styles of okonomiyaki, Osaka style (mixed) and Hiroshima style (layered). At okonomiyaki restaurants, although you can choose what you like to be mixed into the batter, the batter itself already contains eggs and very likely, fish stock. This is a plant-based take on Osaka’s version. If you’re in Osaka, I recommend Vegetable Bar Aju’s (my fav vegan restaurant there) okonomiyaki.
There are certain ingredients that may be foreign to some. Some are important in getting the texture right.
1. Nagaimo (Chinese yam, don’t omit)
A starchy root, usually available in wet markets or the refrigerated section of supermarkets. This is one amazing ingredient that I learnt about during a vegan takoyaki cooking class in Kyoto. Chinese use it in stir-fries and soups, but often in Japanese cuisine, it’s simply grated and eaten raw as a topping. It’s naturally sticky and smooth without flavour – a fantastic egg replacement in certain applications. Traditional okonomiyaki already contains nagaimo to lift the batter.
2. Aonori (topping, optional)
A type of seaweed dried and made into flakes. The one in the photo is actually aosa (a cheaper type of seaweed) not aonori, but taste is almost the same.
3. Japanese mayonnaise (topping, optional)
Tastier than Western mayo with stronger umami. Vegan mayo is quite easily available in the big cities I visited in Japan, but I haven’t seen it here yet. So I made my own, recipe below. Although optional, I highly recommend as the creamy savouriness really adds depth.
4. Dashi powder (use either this or soup stock)
If you don’t wish to make soup stock from scratch, you can buy konbu dashi powder. This is also used in my mayo recipe below. I got this one in Donki.
5. Beni Shouga (red ginger pickles, optional)
This goes into the batter. It’s gingery and slightly sweet. It’s optional but often used in okonomiyaki, so I included it. I think the main idea is to introduce something crunchy, tangy and umami for textural variation. So you can add any types of pickles you like, or add something else with umami if you don’t like pickles.
6. Okonomi sauce (topping)
Similar to BBQ sauce but thicker and slightly more tangy and sweet. You can replace with regular BBQ sauce. I got this from the Japanese section in NTUC.
7. Baking powder + vinegar+unsweetened soymilk (egg replacement, don’t omit)
This is to produce air bubbles in the batter so it’s light and tender, not dense or doughy. Okonomiyaki usually already have baking powder, I just added vinegar to help produce the air bubbles. You can use any types of vinegar with a light flavour, like rice, brown rice, apple cider or distilled vinegar. Soymilk helps to add protein and moisture, which also helps to achieve a light and moist texture. This particular brand of soy milk in the photo is great for cooking, from Donki. Don’t use sweetened flavoured soymilk, unless you really like chocolate flavoured okonomiyaki? 🙂
8. Dashi (don’t omit)
Dashi is the backbone of Japanese cuisine. It’s a soup stock used in most savoury foods, usually made from fish (katsuo). The ocean has blessed us with another source of briny umami from plants – kelp, a.k.a konbu. Learn how to make konbu dashi easily here. Since washing the dried konbu isn’t recommended, I prefer to use Japanese konbu (available in some NTUC and Japanese shops) as Chinese ones sometimes have sand. In this picture, the dashi hasn’t been boiled yet hence the light colour. You may use vegetable or mushroom stock to replace.
Recipe: Japanese mayonnaise (egg & dairy-free)
Makes about 500ml (The recipe is doubled because my food processor is too big, if you want to make less, half the recipe.)
- 1/2 cup aquafaba (the water from a can of chickpeas)
- 2 tsp mustard powder
- 1 tsp black salt
- 3 tsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 cups grape seed oil
- 2 tsp konbu dashi powder
- 4 tsp fresh lemon juice
- Pinch of turmeric (optional, for colour)
- Process aquafaba and mustard in a food processor.
- While the food processor is running, drizzle a third of the oil slowly into mixture. Do not pour all at once.
- Add salt, sugar and dashi powder.
- Drizzle a third of the oil again while the food processor is running.
- Add rice vinegar, lemon juice and drizzle the remaining oil. Process the mixture for extra 10 seconds after everything is mixed.
- Taste and adjust by adding more sugar, dashi or black salt to your taste. Try not to add more of the liquid ingredients to avoid diluting it. If it’s too thin, drizzle more oil while machine is running to thicken. Store in clean bottles, can be kept in fridge for a week.
Recipe: Okonomiyaki (egg-free)
Makes 3 medium-sized pancakes. Recipe adapted from Just One Cookbook – look at the step-by-step photos here before attempting.
- 1 cup flour, sifted (also works with whole wheat flour)
- 1/2 tsp black salt (or sea salt, to enhance flavour)
- 1/2 tsp soy sauce (because we are omitting animal products, it’ll be best to add more flavour to the batter)
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp rice vinegar (or any light flavoured vinegar)
- 1/3 cup unsweetened soymilk
- 3 inch nagaimo, grated
- 3/4 cup plant-based dashi (Or 1 tsp dashi powder dissolved in 3/4 cup water)
These ingredients can be replaced with anything you like:
- 1/2 of a medium sized cabbage, chopped finely
- 1 tomato, chopped finely
- 4 shiitake mushrooms, chopped finely
- 1/4 cup chopped pickles (or anything with umami that you like, eg: other pickles, kimchi, preserved black beans, achar, Chinese preserved mustard, etc)
- Green onions, chopped finely (those who can’t take alliums, try chopped chilli, ginger or toon sauce, etc.)
- Slices of marinated tofu or tempeh, or any sliced protein, mushroom or veggie that you prefer.
Toppings (as much or as little as you like)
- Japanese mayonnaise
- Okonomi sauce
- Chopped spring onions (optional)
- Vegan dried squid (can buy from vegetarian grocery shops, optional, to replace bonito flakes)
- Aonori or aosa (or similar seaweed flakes)
- Other topping ideas: Chilli sauce, fried onions, soy floss, black pepper, chilli flakes, sesame seeds, furikake
- Mix flour, salt and sugar in a big bowl.
- Add grated nagaimo and dashi stock. Mix.
- Add vinegar, soy milk and pickles. Mix till just combined.
- Add chopped vegetables and mushrooms a third at a time. Mix before adding the next batch. Batter should be sticky and thick with visible air bubbles.
- Heat oil in a non-stick pan.
- Pour a third of the batter into the pan. Use spatulas to press the batter into a round shape. Reduce to low medium heat, cook for couple of minutes till browned.
- Press slices of tempeh/tofu on top of the batter.
- Using 2 spatulas, flip the pancake to cook the side with sliced tofu/tempeh.
- Cook till browned, remove from heat and transfer to plate. Spread okonomi sauce on top.
- Top with mayo, aonori, spring onions and other toppings you like.
- Repeat until you use up all batter. Serve hot!
1. Do not over mix the batter to avoid pressing out air bubbles. Stop when everything is just combined.
2. A good okonomiyaki has one more ingredient – tempura bits. It’s helps to make the batter fluffier. However, my parents wish to avoid deep fried foods so I didn’t buy it. Those are available in the okonomiyaki section in Donki. Note that not all types are plant-based.
3. If you’re cooking this for the first time, start by making smaller pancakes so it’s easier to flip. Don’t hesitate when you flip and do it with one quick action.
I can’t take full credit for developing this recipe. There’s plenty of Japanese recipes online but I prefer to learn from ones that are written by Japanese people. I learnt a lot from Just One Cookbook and my favourite, A Japanese Vegan’s Kitchen. Highly recommend their pages for precious, time-saving tips! Next up, ramen. Stay tuned 🙂