The irony of eel and cabbage

At that age, I couldn’t fully grasp the realities that strapped my mother.

Parents shield their children from so much, don’t they? But with what limited understanding I could wring from my observations, even this was obvious: in the months where the days were short and when the air breathed ice onto lawns, she had to choose between keeping us warm and keeping us fed. My brother and I, still growing like grass in the summer, managed to outgrow our coats every year without fail. On the other hand, my father, who lived in Taiwan, somehow could never remember that coats were a necessity in Canada. So the budget we lived by were always short somewhat. I understood too, that while he was an actuary, he was also an entrepreneur in establishing his own consulting firm. But that meant there were tough times when clients are few. I was proud of him, but sentiments aren’t money.

My mother, who self-proclaims to be mathematically illiterate, always brought me along when she went out to buy groceries. I memorized the prices of different brands of canned fish. I learned which fruits and vegetables were cheap and good in which season. I became versed in which cuts of meat from which animals were cheapest and best for which dishes. This was all before I could stay at home by myself, which is why I was always there to help carry the haul. Sometimes to reward me she would ask if I wanted custard cream puffs from the bakery counter, at first I always said yes. But as I said so less and less after learning more and more about our finances, my mother stopped asking and would just place them in our cart. She would smile and say that it was she who wanted them. Once we got home, we’d eat them together and save the rest for my brother after he came home from basketball practice.

One of the dishes my mom made frequently from those days was okonomiyaki, a Japanese cabbage pancake that’s usually fried with bacon and topped with a sweet and tangy Worcestershire based sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Cabbage is one of those cheap vegetables that are super nutritious and have tons of bulk, so are filling to boot. A few strips of bacon, while not exactly cheap by weight compared to other meats, goes a longer way in terms of flavour.

Like cabbage, unagi or broiled fresh water eel were also common occupants of our refrigerator. To most, unagi is akin to uni, ikura, and toro – a luxury item. However, with my strangely gung-ho grandparents running an eel farm and processing plant, this had never occurred to me. If there was ever any surplus that wasn’t sold to our clients in Japan, my grandmother would load them into one of her many personal chest-freezers and insist that my dad or other relatives stuff their suitcases with them and deliver them to us. So while we seldom had steak on the table, the eel never stopped swimming.

My mother didn’t put cabbage and eel together. But now that I have, I would like to make this dish for her. She might like it, she might not, but I love this dish. It reminds me of the irony of the times, the context. We had little money, and plenty of eel. I didn’t use ‘but’, because the eel’s price was hidden from me.

Sakura Ebi Okonomiyaki with Unagi and Truffle Aioli
Sakura Ebi Okonomiyaki with Unagi and Truffle Aioli

My WordPress and IG stats suggest that I don’t have that large of an audience base in Japan (shockingly most are in either Toronto or New York), but I will still include a disclaimer. In the case you’re from Japan, this is probably a blasphemous rendition of your favourite food, and I won’t be offended that you might be. But I also want to point out that this dish is a very accurate, almost inevitable product of my upbringing and my family’s micro-culture. And it is very, very delicious.

Sakura Ebi Okonomiyaki with Unagi and Truffle Aioli– for 1

  • 350g Taiwanese cabbage, thinly sliced via a Japanese mandoline (about 1/4 of a flat head cabbage, you can find these in most Asian grocery stores. Please do not use the round, green North American/European ones – this is non-negotiable.)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp dried sakura ebi, optional
  • large pinch of sea salt and few grinds of black pepper
  • Broiled Freshwater Eel (see below)
  • Truffle Aioli (see below)
  • Close Enough Okonomiyaki Sauce (see below)
  • shaved bonito
  1. In a large bowl whisk together the egg, flour, sea salt, and black pepper until a smooth thick batter forms.
  2. Add the cabbage and sakura ebi to the batter and fold/mix using a wooden spatula/spoon for about 3-4 minutes or until the batter is evenly distributed, the cabbage has wilted slightly, and the mixture just barely holds together. (It will look like a ridiculously large amount of cabbage for a pittance of batter, but trust me, any more batter and the pancake will taste doughy and heavy. The mixture will come together provided you’ve mixed it enough and your cabbage was sliced thin enough.)
  3. Heat a large non-stick skillet on medium high heat.
  4. Once the pan is hot, add 1 tbsp of vegetable oil to the pan and swirl it around.
  5. Scrape the cabbage mixture into the pan and press it down with the back of a spatula. Shape the mixture into a 7 to 8-inch round by gathering in the edges and pressing down areas that have more bulk with the back of a spatula.
  6. Turn the heat down to low and cover the pan with a lid. Cook for 5 minutes undisturbed before flipping, covering, and cooking for another 5 minutes on the other side.
  7. Slide the pancake onto a plate. Brush generously with the close-enough Okonomiyaki sauce, drizzle with the aioli, top with eel, and sprinkle over the shaved bonito.
  8. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

Broiled Freshwater Eel – for 1

  • 1/2 vaccuum-packed fully cooked unagi, thawed (you can find these in most East Asian grocers, in the frozen seafood section)
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp mirin
  1. DO NOT FOLLOW THE PACKAGE INSTRUCTIONS. It will tell you to boil the bag and serve, done. That is a very sad way to eat eel.
  2. Line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper that’s about 1 inch more than your piece of eel on all sides.
  3. Slide the eel onto the parchment paper.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce and mirin. Brush the mixture onto the eel and bake at 425 degrees F (or the “Toast” function of your countertop toaster oven, what a blessed piece of equipment).
  5. Brush the eel with the remaining mirin-soy glaze every few minutes whenever the glaze dries on the eel until the mixture is used up and the eel is deeply coloured and the edges of the skin begin to crisp, about 12 minutes.
  6. Serve with freshly steamed rice or in this case, use to top the okonomiyaki.

Truffle Aioli – makes about 1/2 cup

  • 1 large garlic clove, grated to a puree (I used a Japanese grater)
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp rice vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3 tbsp truffle oil
  • 1/3 c canola oil
  • pinch of sugar
  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the pureed garlic, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, salt, pinch of sugar, and egg yolk until thoroughly combined.
  2. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the truffle oil. Stop drizzling every so often to make sure that the oil is being properly incorporated into the egg yolk. Once the truffle oil is all incorporated, drizzle in the canola oil, still whisking, until it’s used up.
  3. The mayonnaise is done when the mixture is thick, pale, and has no streaks of oil running through it. If it is too thick, whisk in a couple tsp of cold water to thin it out.
  4. Transfer into a squeeze bottle and refrigerate until needed.

Close-Enough Okonomiyaki Sauce – makes about 1/2 cup

  • 3 tbsp thick soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp ketchup
  • 3 tbsp black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce
  1. Mix together and keep in a squeeze bottle. Refrigerate and use as needed.

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