A communal tabletop cooker is great for a long intimate dinner for two, a rowdy family meal or a catch up with old friends.
I have thought lately that this kind of cooking is the perfect way to highlight your ferments, as you can have them in little bowls ready to eat no matter what you’re cooking. Lately, because of my recent natto addition at The Ferm, the family has been eating okonomiyaki straight from the tabletop cooker. It’s actually a great way to get the natto in something, almost disguised, and in a way where the texture is a bit more familiar for the Western palate. Another bonus of course is that natto can be cooked and heated without killing the bacteria!
I think it’s worth getting one of these flat grills for okonomiyaki alone. We have several table top cookers and grills (which, I admit, can be annoying to store in a small kitchen). My first one I picked up in Japan, for various grilled dishes, but mostly for okonomiyaki. The next I got in Brussels for Raclette, where this addictive cheese was more accessible and much cheaper. Next was a bright red hot pot my parents used for dinner parties in the ‘80’s, and then last year I found a little squat Japanese charcoal pit in an antique store. The kids would tell you it’s for anything on sticks, including marshmallows, which is fine with me.
Japan has fabulous winter food, and the cold air carries the enticing smells of charcoal fuelled smoke cooking takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yaki soba, ramen, nikuman, dango, varieties of yakitori, oden, roasted chestnuts, sweet potato cooked on coals smothered with butter…There was a little place near our house in Takao with greasy tatami mats that we’d climb up onto, shoes off and tuck our socked feet under the heat of the tabletop grill.
When you are cooking like that together, it takes time and slows things down so you can enjoy warm sake, a cold beer and good stodgy food. Time together, the ease of DIY and the ‘pick your own ingredients’ adventure is such a special ,celebratory way to eat with family and friends. For okonomiyaki, give each person a bowl of ingredients to mix themselves (fussy eaters, taken care of easily), cook them up right there, flip and then paint with sauce, decorate with kewpie, Katsuoboshi (bonito) and seaweed.
My favourite combination is natto and little chopped up blocks of rice mochi, which you can buy atJapanese food stores—they look like blocks of soap and are individually wrapped.
You might also need to source some of the other ingredients from an Asian food store, so better buy a lot when you do so you’re always ready. And here’s a recipe for okonomiyaki. Enjoy.