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Diner's dilemma: Okonomiyaki or monjayaki?
Two classic Japanese dishes, but only one winner, as the yakis collide in the battle of the "pancakes"
The Kanto and Kansai regions, home to Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, have a history of rivalry longer than a line waiting to enter a Saturday-morning department store sale.
Just as each city’s people consider themselves unique, so too are their versions of the “as you like it” dish -- okonomiyaki (okonomi = honorable choice, yaki = fried or grilled) to its supporters.
This savory pancake, sometimes referred to (by only the most literal naïfs) as Japanese pizza, is a popular snack food that goes back to a Buddhist tradition of serving crepe-like desserts called funoyaki during ceremonies.
From here on out the stories of both the “original” okonomiyaki claimed by Kansai and its Kanto kin, monjayaki, (widely known as simply “monja”) get a bit murky.
What seems clear is that the modern form of both okonomiyaki and monja first appeared on the tables of Japan around World War II.
As rice was scarce, people got creative with the ingredients on hand, particularly flour.
Teppan grills have always been a simple cooking method, so resourceful cooks got to work with their teppans, flour supply and whatever ingredients they had, hence the “as you like it” part of the dish.
What is also clear is that okonomiyaki is neither pancake nor pizza in the traditional sense, though you can top it with sauce and even throw some cheese in there if you like.
Both versions of the snack use eggs and cabbage in addition to the flour base, plus whatever toppings you desire, hence ... we won’t repeat the obvious phrase again.
Mentaiko, or spicy cod roe, plus mochi and cheese is a popular combo, as is seafood curry. Pork, squid and shrimp also make frequent appearances in either mix.
Kansai folk swear the first okonomiyaki was created and named there in the 1930s.
Perhaps Tokyoites just couldn’t handle that their Osaka adversaries had created such a delicious and well-received snack, so they decided to design their own.
Apparently, monja started out as a children’s snack -- a simple rolled-up crepe sold with a few toppings in the old shitamachi, or downtown, areas around Asakusa.
There are still some traditional monja and okonomiyaki joints in the area.
So, which is better? Here’s a quick face-off between monja and okonomiyaki -- see for yourself how they stack up.
Round 1: Appearance
Seconds out, round one -- and the most important thing is how it looks.
Sorry Tokyo, okonomiyaki takes the (pan)cake here. Smothered in a tangy sauce, amid a sea of brightly colored aonori seaweed powder, waves of creamy mayonnaise play host to dancing katsuobushi flakes.
It’s a messy, yet artful sight to behold.
Monja, on the other hand, lies barren of condiments and sprawled on the teppan plate in a sight that might evoke memories of a sloppy night on a Kabukicho backstreet ... if you get our drift.
Total score: Okonomiyaki 1 -- Monja 0
Round 2: Ease of eating
Monja comes back swinging on this one, wielding its mini-spatulas.
As monja is eaten directly off the grill, each person uses an adorable tool to scoop up their bite once the mixture is thick enough to eat.
Hint -- monja experts always press a section of the mix into the grill to get it slightly firmer on the outside, crispy even, before cutting off a piece to eat.
Though some restaurants will give you the dainty and dexterous mini-spatulas with okonomiyaki, you’re often stuck with chopsticks to try and cut up the pancake, which can be tricky.
Total score: Okonomiyaki 1 -- Monja 1
More on CNN: Best okonomiyaki in Osaka
Round 3: Variety
The Osaka corner is starting to fade when we get to round three.
While a standard set of toppings and flavor combinations are available for both versions of the dish, okonomiyaki offers more variations, with its Hiroshima style in addition to the Osaka version.
Traditional Osaka style has all ingredients mixed up first and cooked together.
In Hiroshima, they prefer to create the pancake in layers, first with the crepe-like base, then heaps of cabbage or bean sprouts, followed by a fried egg or two and noodles to top it all off.
Total score: Okonomiyaki 2 -- Monja 1
Round 4: Ease of cooking
Monja sneaks in a hit while okonomiyaki turns around.
The Tokyo dish may require cooking the dry ingredients first, then hollowing out a center space for the batter, but in the end it’s all mixed together and stretched out, relaxed in its simplicity.
The fact that okonomiyaki is a taller stack of ingredients and needs to be flipped at just the right time, while still managing to cook the batter through but not overdo it, makes monja the simpleton’s preference.
That’s important, as hale-and-hearty do-it-yourself establishments are the norm for this cuisine.
Total score: Okonomiyaki 2 -- Monja 2
Round 5: Availability
It seems monja got a little too comfortable lying around on the teppan, as okonomiyaki makes a final victory lunge, squeezing its multi-spout mayonnaise tube and pummeling monja in this final round.
While most monjayaki restaurants also serve okonomiyaki, not all okonomiyaki joints are made for monja.
What’s more, you won’t see the runny, gooey monja on street corners, available for a takeout lunch in the park.
Final score: Okonomiyaki 3 -- Monja 2
We have a winner -- in the Kansai corner, it’s okonomiyaki by a round. Congratulations, Osaka -- have an extra topping on us.
Where to get yours
In Tokyo, Sakura Tei is a hipster haven and rumored local celebrity haunt, with walls covered in bright graffiti and staff that are even more colorful.
Its location on a back alley near Takeshita Dori will impress first-time visitors. The tabehoudai (all you can eat) menu for under ¥2,000 (US$26) gets you 120 minutes of stuff-your-face okonomiyaki, monjayaki, soba-meshi, or whatever takes your fancy.
English menus are available and include illustrations on how to prepare your dish of choice at the table teppan grill. Take the Takeshita Dori Exit from Harajuku Station.
Sakura Tei, 3-20-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, +81 (0) 3 3479 0039; open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; www.sakuratei.co.jp
Tsukishima, also known as Monja Street, is a recommended stop for anyone who wants to experience the real Tokyo original.
About seven blocks of restaurants line Nishinaka Dori, each with their own particular character.
Pick any one that looks inviting and you’re sure to get some delicious food, with both monjayaki and okonomiyaki styles on offer.
Most establishments will do the cooking for you at your tabletop grill, so feel free relax and enjoy a frosty mug of Super Dry. Get there from Exit 7 of Tsukishima Metro Station.
More on CNN: 40 Tokyo foods we can’t live without