nagaimo: the legend of the slimey tuber

August 17th, 2006


Remember that weird looking vegetable I bought at Berkeley Bowl? It’s up there on the right, looking potato-like in an anemic sort of way, and somewhat hairy. Nagaimo is its Japanese name, and the Japanese turn it into a pancake called okonomiyaki, or “pancake made of weird slimey root vegetable.” If you thought tapioca was slimey, bubble drink pearls ain’t got nothin’ on nagaimo. Aliens exploding from Sigourney Weaver’s belly are less slimey than this. Seriously.

Still, slime can be an asset when you’re trying to get pancake batter to stick together. Hence okonomiyaki: a thick pancake filled with thinly sliced cabbage, scallions, pork belly, and shrimp. Okonomiyaki is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, and—unlike Sigourney Weaver—exploding with contrasting flavors. The pancake is topped with sweet and sour sauce and sprinkled with seaweed flakes. It is then decorated with thin lines of Japanese mayonnaise, sliced like a pizza, and served. Nagaimo is both a binder and a starchy filler for the batter, which is rounded out with some flour and eggs.

My attempt at okonomiyaki was tasty, if not entirely authentic. I didn’t have any pork belly, shrimp, or scallions on hand, nor did I have any Japanese maonnaise (or any mayonnaise at all, for that matter). But I’m the type of person who insists on baking chocolate cake when I’m fresh out of chocolate and eggs. Once I’ve got an idea in my head, well, that’s it. Equipped with the basics—nagaimo, flour, eggs, and cabbage—I came up with a pretty tasty dinner pancake in the okonomiyaki style.

Here’s what I did. Using this traditional okonomiyaki recipe as a guide, I:

  • Quadrupled the recipe, producing 2 large pancakes and one small pancake, enough for about 4 servings
  • Substituted natural, full fat yogurt for half the water
  • Omitted one egg
  • Substituted grated cheddar cheese for the meat and shrimp
  • Substituted minced miniature leeks for the scallions (white part only)
  • Substituted ripped, toasted nori squares for the seaweed flakes
  • Cooked the pancakes in coconut oil
  • Topped the pancakes with my own sweet and sour sauce made by cooking fresh, whole tomatoes with soy sauce, vinegar, and mustard, salt and pepper

The result was an interesting mix of flavors and textures, the somewhat crunchy cabbage playing against the softness of the pancake, the gooeyness of the cheese and the crispness of the pancake on the outside. The aged cheddar added tang and depth, while the leeks lent an onion flavor with a slight bite. The sweet and sour sauce and the seaweed provided a counterpoint to the strong flavors on the inside of the pancake. The beauty of okonomiyaki, it seems, is its encapsulation of (almost) all flavors—sour, sweet, salty, umami—and contradiction of textures—crisp and soft, gooey and crunchy.

The vegetarian okonomiyaki was fun to eat, but I imagine that the original is a much more adventurous exercise in flavor and texture. Removing the pork belly and shrimp is like taking the filling out of pain au chocolat. You’re left with a croissant—a treat in itself—but it isn’t pain au chocolat.

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