What are Japanese Pancakes?

Whether you prefer them thick and fluffy or flat and foldable, we all love a good pancake. Practically as old as civilisation itself, there are hardly any countries in the world that do not have some version of the humble pancake, and Japan is no exception.

Pancakes have existed in Japan since the Edo period (1603-1868); when a sweet, crepe-like, filled and folded pancake was served during Buddhist ceremonies. This pancake was eventually separated in two – a sweet version and a savoury version. The savoury pancake then evolved further to become okonomiyaki, an established Japanese delicacy. The sweet filled pancake started to be made with techniques similar to those used to make casutera, or castella cake. This spongier pancake became the norm, and is still used to this day to make dorayaki, a sweet, sandwich-like dessert. Sweet Japanese pancakes are also enjoyed stacked on top of each other and served with various toppings.

Read on to find out more about the different types of sweet and savoury Japanese pancake. If you are thinking of making your next pancake day decidedly Japanese, take a look at japancentre.com’s range of sweet and savoury pancake ingredients.

Pancakes/Hot Cakes

Present-day Japan derives a lot of inspiration from the US with regards to serving pancakes. Many of the bigger cities have speciality pancake restaurants, where thick (1cm thick or thicker), small (normally around 10-15cm in diameter), and fluffy pancakes are served in neat little stacks with an assortment of toppings (including butter, maple syrup, cream, fruit, and ice cream). Extra flavours might also be incorporated into the pancake batter, including chocolate, matcha green tea, or strawberry. Pancakes are a popular sweet treat to make at home as well, with packs of ready-made pancake mix available in every grocery store.

This simple type of Japanese pancake (or panke-ki, in Japanese), is often also referred to as a hot cake (hottoke-ki); and for many, the two terms are interchangeable. However, there are also some who argue that pancakes are less sweet and made using water as the liquid; allowing for a heavier and heartier pancake that could, in theory, be used for savoury dishes as well as sweets. Hot cakes, on the other hand, are sweeter and made with milk for a lighter, fluffier consistency much better suited for a sweet snack or dessert. Some people also argue that Japanese hotcakes achieve that light, fluffy consistency better than American pancakes/hotcakes.

To make unbeatable Japanese pancakes/hotcakes from scratch, take a look at any of the recipes below.

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A popular type of washoku (Japanese-style) dessert, dorayaki are two small Japanese-style pancakes joined in the middle with sweet bean paste (or tsubu-an).

The original dorayaki style dessert dates back to the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868), and it consisted of a crepe-like pancake which was folded over and filled with miso paste. This original dessert was called funoyaki. By the end of the Edo period, the miso paste had been replaced with tsubu-an, and the dessert had been renamed sukesoyaki. Then in 1914, the owner of a confectioner in Ueno, Tokyo, called Usagiya (meaning ‘rabbit house’) decided to make a variation of sukesoyaki with two fluffy, cake-like pancakes, made using a recipe similar to the recipe for castella cake, or kasutera. The popularity of this version spread throughout the country, and eventually it was given the name dorayaki, where dora means ‘gong’ (dorayaki have a gong-like shape) and yaki means ‘dry-cooked’.

Dorayaki these days are still filled most often with tsubu-an paste. However, there are a wealth of other popular fillings also available; including chocolate custard, matcha green tea cream, and chestnut paste. In theory, dorayaki can have any filling or fillings you desire. Interested in making your own dorayaki? Try our Dorayaki Pancakes Recipe.

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Okonomiyaki (with ‘okonomi’ meaning ‘what you like’ and ‘yaki’ meaning ‘dry-cooked’) shares the same origin story as dorayaki, having first been consumed as a miso-filled crepe called funoyaki, then as a sweet tsubu-an filled crepe called sukesoyaki.

In the 1920s and 1930s, especially with the effects of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923; sekesoyaki, as a food that was relatively inexpensive to produce, started to be eaten as a staple food. In Tokyo, the water and flour mixture was combined with meat, vegetables, and Worcestershire sauce, to make a dish called monjayaki, which is still eaten to this day and considered a softer, runnier version of okonomiyaki. The influence of monjayaki spread to Osaka, where it was flattened out and green onion was added to it. It gained the more general name of issen-yoshoku, which means ‘cheap Western food’ (considered ‘Western’ because it contained Worcestershire sauce). Other versions of issen-yoshoku were also invented in the Osaka region, including betayaki, where beans, konnyaku, and soy sauce were added to the mixture, and choboyaki, which had similar ingredients but was cooked in a pan with semi-circular dents along the bottom. It is believed that choboyaki was the larval form of takoyaki, another popular dish in modern Japanese cuisine.

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After World War II, when food was expensive and scarce, issen-yoshoku gained a huge boost in popularity because it was relatively cheap to make. Eventually cabbage was added to the mixture, as well as any other desired/available ingredients (some of which include pork slices, prawns, carrots, sweetcorn, mochi rice cakes, and konnyaku konjac yam). The increasing versatility in chosen ingredients is what gave this dish the name ‘okonomiyaki’. These mixes of ingredients would be grilled on both sides (like pancakes) until they were solid and could be sliced up. The Japanese developed a taste for okonomiyaki, and as more expensive foods (such as expensive meats and eggs) became more affordable, these were also added, and okonomiyaki became the delicacy we know today.

These days there are two varieties of okonomiyaki. The most well-known version, from Osaka and the Kansai region, is made by mixing all of the desired chopped ingredients together into a batter, grilling both sides, then adding toppings like okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Japanese Worcestershire sauce), mayonnaise, nori seaweed sprinkles, and bonito fish flakes. Hiroshima style okonomiyaki is made by making a pancake of flour and water, adding a large amount of shredded cabbage on top, and then adding your other favourite toppings layer by layer. The whole pancake is then flipped onto fried eggs on either side just before serving.

Take a look at the recipes below to make great-tasting Osaka style or Hiroshima style okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki Recipes >

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