Brixton Village is one of the things that South Londoners are smug about: we have a labyrinth of restaurants and coffee shops unrivalled by North London so NER. The only difficult decision is deciding where to have lunch between the choices of dumplings, burgers, jerk and noodles. It took at least one coin toss.
So we chose none of the above and went for okonomiyaki instead at Okan. It’s cash-only, no branded drinks and deservedly busy. Run by a team of frenetic but always incredibly polite Japanese ladies, it reminded me of my halcyon days eating okonomiyaki in the wee small hours in the busy stalls of Osaka.
What is okonomiyaki?
Okonomiyaki is one of the lesser-known Japanese foods outside the homeland, although immensely popular with the Japanese, who know that Osaka and Hiroshima are the places to go if you want the good stuff. Basically a (very) glorified pancake, it translates roughly to ‘as-you-like-it’-yaki, which reflects the fact that it’s really up to you what meats, fish and flavourings you want in and on top of the finished article.
The base is a mix of flour, egg, yam starch, dashi and shredded cabbage. The rest is up to you – pork, shrimp, beef, kimchi – mostly anything goes. The usual way of eating this is to sit either at the bar where the chef works on a hot teppan right in front of you, or where the grill is in the middle of your table and waiters magically appear to flip and mix before anything ever starts to stick. The batter arrives whipped up in cups, splatted unceremoniously onto the hot griddle and spread into about a 6-inch circle. Meat or other toppings are laid on top to cook when the pancake is flipped over.
Once done, okonomiyaki is served up with its sauce (a sweeter, less tangy version of tonkatsu sauce), sweet Japanese mayonnaise and powdered seaweed. It’s cut up into quarters and usually meant for sharing, although a perfect portion to have all to yourself. Yakisoba is a typical side dish, and you can also have noodles incorporated into the okonomiyaki as a ‘modan-yaki’ (‘modern’ yaki – don’t ask why, don’t know).
So back to Okan, where the okonomiyaki aren’t cooked at the table – it’s too cosy for that – but the short but perfectly formed menu lets you choose what you want in and on them. The pancakes were pretty damn good – we had the special (with kimchi, prawns and sweet corn) and pork, which both arrived quickly. They were quite cabbage-heavy but better at central London chain Abeno – and at around £7 each, a fraction of the price.
The list of sides available is short, but the tofu salad we had was topped with deliciously creamy Japanese sesame dressing which made up for the slightly tiddly bits of tofu. The yakisoba came with generous amounts of the squid that we chose to have it with and between the two of us, we emerged happily stuffed for a total of £28 including drinks.
What’s particularly nice about Okan is the atmosphere – decorated with bric-a-brac that gives a Japanese vibe without feeling the need to be slick or try-hard. It feels like walking into any okonomiyaki place in Osaka (although probably not open for the same hours). Service was hyper-efficient but you don’t feel rushed – even when it’s busy – which is always what I’ve found to be the particular perk of eating at Japanese restaurants. Food comes quick, but there’s no bill plonked on the table as soon as you’ve put your chopsticks down.
Put simply, I loved Okan. It’s a happy little piece of Osaka – the best food days of my life – nestled in a friendly corner of my newer home, south London. The perfect place for a slice of comfort food.
A few shots of the O-town…