College is not a time for eating well.
My supremely health-conscious, gluten-free, vegan mother would be appalled to learn of the 2 AM feasts consisting spicy Korean instant noodles and entire cookies-and-cream chocolate bars that my friends and I have the night before a huge Endocrinology exam. It’s like there’s this inevitable positive relationship between my grades and my caloric intake: the better I do in school, the fatter I get. A fine price to pay, I think. Bow down to the 20-year-old Asian female metabolism! You know you want it.
But there are some times when you want to put some effort into your poor dietary habits. If you can’t eat classy things, then you make your nasty shit comfort food with as much class as a college dorm kitchen can offer. Enter Hiroshima okonomiyaki, or the Japanese version of the ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD.
In Japanese, okonomi means “what you like”, and yaki means “grilled” or “cooked”. It’s like the chef’s version of YOLO: instead of You Only Live Once, it’s I COOK WHATEVER THE F*CK I WANT, H8RS GON H8. In my defense (in case you’re reading this, Mom and Dad), there’s cabbage, green onions, and bean sprouts in it, which makes it exemplarily healthy. Going from bottom to top, you have: a layer of fried egg; a thick layer of spicy yakisoba; bean sprouts, seaweed, green onions, and cubed daikon; winter cabbage; and a crispy pancake garnished generously with seaweed and bonito flakes to finish. Oh, and bacon. Between the yakisoba noodles and the vegetables there is a sizzling layer of bacon, crispy at the edges and chewy in the middle – just how I like it, and oh, how I’ve missed it. Dining hall bacon is a travesty.
Unlike the popular Osaka version of okonomiyaki, which just tosses or mixes all of the ingredients together, Hiroshima okonomiyaki layers each of its ingredients. This makes it terribly difficult to put together, especially when you have to transfer layers of noodles and shredded cabbage across a stovetop into different frying pans. Okonomiyaki is usually cooked on a griddle so the transferring of okonomiyaki components as the dish grows taller throughout the cooking process is a bit more expedited and a lot less messy.
I also didn’t have okonomiyaki sauce, which tastes like a sweeter and thicker version of Worcestershire sauce, and you could definitely tell that the okonomiyaki needed it. But hey, I’m in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont, where highly specific and regional Japanese sauces are a little bit hard to come by. In the meantime, over-peppering the yakisoba noodles and using a little bit of pickled daikon (white radish) will make do.
The pickled daikon was offered to me graciously by my beautiful friend who was preparing ingredients to make kimbap over the weekend. We had driven for over an hour earlier in the day to go to the nearest Asian foods store for ingredients. The drive itself took an hour, but the entire trip to the Asian foods store took 45 extra minutes because for that extra amount of time we sat in the school parking lot trying to figure out how to start the rental car, which happened to be a hybrid. I’m from Northern California, so you’d think that I’d know how to drive a hybrid, but I’m a loser 20-year-old who can’t drive (… BECAUSE I TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORT. EXTRA ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY. #BOSS) and she’s from Southern California so she of course has never been exposed to a hybrid.
We spent 45 minutes trying to figure out how to start the damm car. This involved pushing every single possible combination of buttons, rifling through the useless “How to Car” pamphlets in the glove compartment, and barging into some poor lady’s office in the building next to the parking lot, crying “WHERE IS ZIPCAR OFFICE HELP PLEASE” while – it was a rental car, remember – the minutes ticked away slowly.
Obviously we eventually figured out how to start the car, but my friend and I agreed that this embarassing tale would never be told, so lets keep this between you and me. (Forgive me, Tiffany.) The hour-long car ride had a therapeutic effect on our memory of this recent trauma. A big bowl of pho and screaming our heads off to Robyn might have helped a little too.
So in the end, we saved the day because we are just really clever. No okonomiyaki sauce, but at least the store had bonito flakes. They were horrifically expensive (could’ve gotten eight $1 sweet teas at Mickey D’s for that tiny condom-sized pack of bonito flakes what) but the taste does remind me of home. And home is comfort because the Asian foods market is a 2 minute walk away, not an hour drive. Vermont. God.
Like I said, okonomiyaki really is the ultimate comfort food. There’s bacon, which kind of explains everything, but there’s also fried egg, noodles, and a savory pancake – a crepe, really. There are vegetables to soothe your guilty conscience as you look at your exponentially expanding waistline the next morning when your orange skinny jeans no longer fit.
Still, I like to think that I live life without any regrets. I can’t exactly promise that the okonomiyaki helped with studying for my Endo test, but long after I forget the negative feedback pathways that glucagon has in the liver, I’ll know this: I’m never going back to instant ramen again.