When I lived in Japan, one of my favorite late-night snacks was Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a savory sort of pancake, filled with cabbage and topped with special Okonomi sauce, kewpie mayonnaise, and Bonito flakes. The pancake is fried in oil, which gives the edges a beautiful crunch. Meanwhile, the cabbage in the pancake gives it the fresh crunch that only cabbage can give. Okonomi sauce is a dark, rich, sweet, and salty sauce that, when mixed with mayo, balances to make a perfect sauce for the savory pancake. The bonito flakes are smoked tuna that has been dried all the way down to almost a wooden consistency. When shaved to paper thin pieces and sprinkled on top of the hot Okonomiyaki, the bonito flakes appear to be dancing on top. They also add a whole other depth of flavor.
Occasionally I like to make Okonomiyaki for friends and family, but for the last few years I have been trying to come up with a way to incorporate some wild ingredients into the dish. What I came up with was using ramps and nettles in place of the cabbage. I don’t usually eat nettles whole—I prefer to use them in pasta or sauces like a chimichurri. I had gone out last week and spent the day picking nettles and ramps so I had a large bag of each in the fridge. If you sauté nettles in butter and squeeze a little lemon on them they taste like a more intense version of spinach. If you’ve ever wondered what the color green must taste like, try nettles.
The batch of nettle I picked was very young and only about a foot tall. I also only picked the tops which are the most tender. Rinse them in the sink and then let them dry in a colander. A lot of people ask me about eating nettles and if they can still sting you when you eat them. Nettles can sting you when you are picking them and as long as they are in whole leaves. Although I have found that once you rinse them in water and using rubber gloves gently massage the leave they lose their ability to sting. Cooking will kill their ability to sting as well. After they are rinsed and dried, I can handle them without gloves, and have never been stung.
I mixed together 2 cups of roughly chopped ramps and 2 cups of nettle leaves and added that to my batter to my Okonomiyaki mix. I decided to fry my Okonomiyaki in bacon fat, just to add a little more flavor. These Okonomiyaki were fabulous: the ramps and nettles held up well in the batter, and the flavor of the ramps and nettles really came through. I may have to get out and find some more ramps and nettles before the season slips away, or I’ll have to wait until next year to have another Okonomiyaki.
Ramp and Nettle Okonomiyaki
You Will Need
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup dashi
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
2 cups roughly chopped ramps
2 cups nettles
2 tablespoons bacon fat
3 strips of bacon cut in half to give you 6 half pieces
All of these topping are available at most Asian food stores
- Combine the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl and stir.
- With a whisk, beat in the eggs and the dashi until you get a smooth batter.
- Using a wooden spoon, stir in the ramps and nettles. Stir until well combined.
- Heat the bacon fat in a non-stick pan over medium heat until the fat is just barely smoking.
- Pour half of the batter mixture into the non-stick pan and form into a flat pancake. While the first side is cooking, lay three half-strips of bacon on the uncooked side. When the edges are golden brown flip the pancake over and finish cooking. The fat from the bacon will render out and fry the other side.
- Continue cooking until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out dry and clean.
- Move the pancake to a serving plate and top with Okonomi sauce, kewpie mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Repeat the process with the remaining batter and serve with an ice-cold beer.