Pancake: A Global History

April 15, 2009


My business will specialise in okonomiyaki. For those who don’t know, okonomiyaki is a style of savoury pancake eaten throughout Japan and which originates from the city of Osaka. Or Hiroshima. No! Osaka! Well, there are two places that claim to have created it, each of which serves their own version of the dish. More accurately, the okonomiyaki served in Osaka and Hiroshima are two distinct pancake styles that happen to share the same name. 

A name which means “cooked as you like it”. Although a customer in an okonomiyaki restaurant will be offered a range of pancake options according to the house style, they’re free to choose their own mix of seafood, meat and other ingredients to be added during cooking. This element of choice in the process is why okonomiyaki is sometimes explained on English-language menus as “Japanese pizza”. 

Since I’ll be specialising in okonomiyaki, one project I do have for the forthcoming website is a history of the dish. There are some brief histories in English: one is here and the other is from the Japanese Pancake World restaurant in Amsterdam (it’s under the Japanese Pancake section), which I’ve yet to visit. Both of these sites claim that the earliest form of Japanese pancake dates back to the 16th century and the tea master Sen no Rikyu (千利休), who was from Sakai, near Osaka. Rikyu invented a snack called funoyaki to accompany the tea ceremony. Are funoyaki really the ur-okonomiyaki? I’m unconvinced and think there are other antecedents for the dish that are being overlooked in favour of the teahouse theory. 

Well, I thought to myself, if I’m going to write a history of okonomiyaki, I’m first going to have to deal with the broader issue of pancakes themselves. Where on earth am I going to find some authoritative and informative research on pancakes? As it turns out, in Pancake: A Global History by Ken Albala!

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California and if you download his adademic CV from that link, you can see that he has written other books such as: Eating Right in the Renaissance, Food in Early Modern Europe, Beans: A History, Food Fights of the Reformation (forthcoming!). Not to mention many and various editorial undertakings, as well as other articles and papers such as:

“Weight Loss in the Age of Reason” Cultures of the Abdomen, ed. Christopher Forth, Palgrave, 2004.

“The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.” The Klopsteg Lecture Series in Science and Human Culture, Northwestern University, 2005.

“Almonds Along the Silk Route” 17th International Ethnological Food Research Conference. Oslo, Norway, September, 2008.

Wonderful! I’m not a man who can resist the draw of a title like “Ludovicus Nonnius and the Elegance of Fish”. I want to know about all these things and, yes, I want to know about pancakes.

Fear not, reader, Pancake: A Global History is by no means a wearisome bibliographical trawl through history. It comes in at a very readable and entertaining 127 pages with photographs, recipes, links and useful bibliography. Its slim, light form fits quite effortlessly into any jacket pocket and can thus accompany you throughout the day, refreshing both the intellect and palate and straining neither wrist nor fabric. 

Albala commences with his definition of a pancake:

“A pancake is a starch-based comestible poured as a batter onto a hot surface and cooked until solid. Normally round and formed by force of gravity, pancakes can also be cooked in a mould or drizzled into any number of free-form shapes. They are usually, and proverbially, flat, though with the right ingredients an adept hand can create light fluffy specimens that rise in defiance of the horizon.”

An important distinction is that “pancakes are always made from a poured batter rather than a rolled dough.” 

Armed with such definition, one should be able to solve any pub or dining table dispute over what is or isn’t a pancake. Well, I write one should, but there are always going to be grey areas, e.g. fritter or pancake? Albala suggests that latke are pancakes. I’d tend to say they were fritters, given the tendency for large amounts of oil in the pan and hence shallow-fried. However, as he points out, our current conception of the latke overlooks the spread of potato-culture in the 18th century and that previous incarnations would have been more pancake-like. He mentions the Sephardic bimuelos, “a traditional honey-drenched fritter flavoured with anise” which is their Hannukah equivalent of the Ashkenazi latke. Certainly a fritter. No less appealing. And on the opposite page? The Scandinavian aebleskiver, a round buckwheat pancake, formerly flavoured with apple, now more commonly dusted wth sugar or eaten with jam. 

Although the book is certainly at its strongest when tracing the history and culture of pancakes in Europe and America, both its proletarian origins and aristocratic yearnings (crêpe suzette, the Austro-Hungarian palacsinta), it doesn’t overlook pancakes elsewhere in the world and there’s an excellent section about Ethiopian injera, which I would not previously thought of as pancakes, as well as one of my favourite dishes during the Lenten fast, the South Indian dosa. Chances are I’ll be eating one in around two hours from now!

So, any useful okonomiyaki information? Well, Albala begins his discussion of pancakes in Japan with mention of dorayaki, which were derived from the kasutera (as the Japanese call it) sponge cake introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century via Nagasaki who called it pão de Castela. Is sponge cake a pancake? No, but cake is made from batter. How did the Portuguese cook this dish on arrival in Japan? Did they use ovens? Griddles? Aside from small toaster affairs, ovens are still an item you won’t generally find in a domestic Japanese kitchen. The national mythology of dorayaki is ascribed to the celebrated samurai Benkei, who left his gong behind at a farmer’s house and which was subsequently used for the making of cakes. What this anecdote brings to mind is that aside from the various ingredients used in any given pancake, cooking is also dependent upon technology and the utensils available (or not) to the cook. Is it that the Portuguese introduced a wheaten pancake or is it also that they popularised some form of griddle? 

Although it’s beyond the scope of his book, Albala does later mention the Korean bin-ja tuk (or bindaetteok), which is a mung bean pancake, also known as jijimi around Pyongyang and there is a localised style of Korean pancake known as chijimi (チヂミ) in Japan. Not to be confused (or is it?) with a similar Korean pancake called pajeon. Intriguingly for the prospective okonomiyaki historian is that there is a written source for bindaetteok from the first (?) Korean cookbook from 1670 called Eumsik dimibang written by one Lady Jang of Andong. Sadly my lack of Hangul prevents me from researching this much further than what’s on Wikipedia, but it is intriguing to note the following:

The dish was originally prepared by frying a mixture of water-soaked and ground mung beans, pork, bracken fern, mung bean sprouts, and cabbage kimchi. This food uses honey for seasoning, and meat was put on the bindaetteok. Rich people ate meat and poor people ate bindaetteok. Therefore, this dish was called bindaebyeong (貧乏; literally “poor person’s pancake”

Pancake? Pork? Cabbage? Poor people? That sounds more like okonomiyaki that any highfalutin tea ceremony snack. Is it possible (gasp!) that okonomiyaki is actually Korean in origin? If I made documentaries for Discovery, I could probably stretch this pitiful amount of information into a hour long programme. As it stands, I really need to look further into source material. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a wonderfully flamboyant and unpleasant character who was succeeded by the tedious Tokugawa shoguns, had one Sen no Rikyu (see above!) as his tea master and confidant – and let’s gloss over that he later instructed the said tea master to commit suicide – and this Hideyoshi is celebrated in Japan for his sponsorship and support of many cultural forms, such as the tea ceremony, and is also commonly despised in Korea for his disastrous attempts at invasion at the end of the 16th century. Is it possible to locate a nascent okonomiyaki in dishes brought back by these returning soldiers or others of the time with a Korean link? All of these strands (tea ceremony, Portugal, Korea, Benkei) together with later additions such as worcestershire sauce (from which the sauce spread on okonomiyaki was developed) or mayonnaise suggest that okonomiyaki is a wonderfully internationalised dish. I digress…

If I were to make any correction to Albala, a tiny counterbalance to my enthusiasm for this book,  I would contest that “virtually any kind of fish or meat can be included” in okonomiyaki. Fish is very rarely encountered in okonomiyaki, other than the bonito flakes that can be used in preparing dashi stock for the batter or scattered atop the finished pancake. Why so little fish given its popularity elsewhere? I don’t really know. My feeling is that the delicacy of fish would be somewhat lost amongst the rest of it. Economy might also be one reason historically. Other sea creatures, such as squid, prawns or scallops fare much better.

Ken Albala also has a great food blog called Ken Albala’s Food Rant which I’ll add to some sidebar once I get around to it!

He may or may not still have a beard. 

He kindly gave me permission to reprint his own okonomiyaki recipe which I will in a separate forthcoming entry. The final words I’ll leave to him with these very relevant words about okonomiyaki:

“For many Japanese, okonomiyaki are a reminder of that happy time of life, before the onset of professional pressures, family and responsibilities. And because they come in so many varieties, everyone has their own particular favourite. Of course any food that can evoke powerful memories qualifies as a comfort food, but these hugely versatile pancakes hold the same appeal that pizza does for students in the West; they are a food to be shared among close friends. The more ingredients and the stranger the combinations, the greater the sense of ownership, and of course the greater the comfort when one eats just the right kind. A friend, expert in Japanese food, says the mere smell of okonomiyaki can bring tears to the eyes of a grown man nostalgic for his student days.”

Note: Pancake: A Global History (ISBN-13: 978 1 86189 392 5) is published by Reaktion Books and is part of their Edible series. It’s priced £8.99 and, yes, you can most probably buy it from Amazon, although you also could visit a local bookshop of your own choice.


One Response to “Pancake: A Global History”

  1. […] in Ken Albala’s Pancake: A Global History (see review!), is his own take on okonomiyaki. There are a number of points to this recipe that might shock the […]

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