My first trip outside the United States was a three-month stay in Japan when I was 18. Even then, I was keenly tuned in to the food scene, health-minded and eager for new taste experiences. My student budget excluded me from fine restaurants, but I was astounded by the array of exciting, and often good-for-you, street-food options.
Okonomiyaki, savory pancakes filled with vegetables, seafood and sometimes meat, was one of my favorites, and today its status remains intact when I need a quick weeknight dinner. Besides being sold by street vendors in Japan, it is traditionally prepared at home as a way to use leftovers, so think of the accompanying recipe as a starting point rather than a precise formula.
Before you make it, check your refrigerator for any bits of cooked vegetable, meat or poultry that need to get used. Feel free to chop it up and toss it in instead of, or in addition to, the mix-ins I use here. This incarnation is an ode to late summer, with kernels of sweet corn and succulent lump crab studding the traditional mix of napa cabbage and scallions, brought together with a soy-seasoned base of egg and (in this case, whole-grain) flour. You might be worried about the batter, which will seem as if it might not hold together. But once it sizzles a bit in the pan, the cakes form beautifully - their exterior crisps and becomes golden brown while the ingredients inside warm and become tender.
Don't skip the sauce. It is an essential, umami-rich element. You can buy okonomiyaki sauce, a common condiment in Japan, but this close facsimile of it is made from simple pantry ingredients and is as convenient as the pancakes themselves.
Corn and Crab Okonomiyaki
Yield: 4 servings
For the sauce 1/4 cup ketchup 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
For the pancakes 1 cup whole-wheat flour 3/4 cup water 1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt 8 ounces lump crabmeat, picked over to remove any cartilage 3 cups shredded napa cabbage 4 large scallions, thinly sliced; dark green slices reserved for optional garnish 3/4 cup corn kernels (from 1 ear corn) 4 large eggs, lightly beaten 3 tablespoons canola oil
For the sauce: Stir together the ketchup, Worcestershire and soy sauce in a small bowl, until well incorporated.
For the pancakes: Whisk together the flour, water, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and salt in a mixing bowl until smooth, then add the crab, cabbage, scallions, corn and eggs, stirring with a spatula until well blended.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Ladle four 1/2-cup portions of the batter into the skillet and press each one down gently with a spatula. Cook for about 5 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom, then turn them over. Add 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the pan and cook the second sides for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through.
If desired, transfer the cooked pancakes to a baking sheet in a 300-degree oven to keep warm as you use the remaining batter, adding oil as before, as needed.
Spread 1/2 tablespoon of the sauce over each pancake, sprinkle with reserved scallion greens, if using, and serve warm.
Nutrition information per serving: 380 calories, 23 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 230 mg cholesterol, 570 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar.