The clue here is in the name: "okonomiyaki" loosely translates to "whatever you like, cooked", and that's certainly how this dish appears. Often described as a "Japanese pancake", okonomiyaki is a delicious mess of a thing, a pile of shredded cabbage plus, usually, some sort of meat component, with a batter made with eggs, flour, grated yam and dashi that's fried on a flat, teppan grill. The resulting disc is then topped with dark okonomiyaki sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and dried bonito flakes. There are countless versions of okonomiyaki with different toppings and fillings, though they are usually done in the style of either the Kansai region – where all ingredients are mixed together before being poured onto the teppan – or Hiroshima, where a thin layer of batter, then cabbage, meat, noodles, and finally the sauces are added to the teppan separately.
The development of okonomiyaki as an affordable, staple dish in both Osaka and Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki first appeared in Osaka in the 1930s. Cheap, filling and easy-to-prepare dishes became popular during hard times particularly during rice shortages. In Hiroshima, the bombing of the city in 1945 led to a need for affordable, substantial cuisine, a need that was neatly filled by this fried concoction of noodles, eggs and flour.
The absolute classic for this dish in Osaka is Okonomiyaki Mizuno (mizuno.gorp.jp), which has been open since 1945, and has previously held a Michelin star, though it's now rated "bib gourmand". In Hiroshima, try Hassho (y792200.gorp.jp), set in the appropriately named Okonomimura district.
Genuinely great okonomiyaki can be a little tricky to find in Australia, though if you're in Sydney, definitely try Jugemu & Shimbashi (jugemushimbashi.com.au) and in Melbourne, Papirica (papirica.online) is seriously good.
ONE MORE THING
Those visiting Tokyo will be interested to find there's a distinct local style of okonomiyaki, called monjayaki. Served mostly in Tokyo's Tsukishima district, monjayaki uses a much thinner batter than Kansai-style okonomiyaki, and has a texture similar to melted cheese. Diners eat it direct from the grill, using small spatulas.
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 happened in the Osaka region. The earthquake actually struck the Kanto region, devastating Tokyo and Yokohama.