London Street Foodie On Tour: OKAN, Brixton: Japanese street food
OK picture this. It is May, it is hot and my sister and I are in Tokyo having spent the day wandering around the city with our excitable guide Mazumi. Our hour-by-hour itinerary is useful but tonight we feel like breaking away from it. So we decide to flee for an evening of robot wars, Eengaleesh pubs and karaoke.
Before our evening can begin, we need fuel, and we want a local speciality. On a street aglow with neon lights and flashing window displays, we skip past a library of tourist menus until we find a restaurant with so much plastic food outside it we decide it would be amusing to see if the little models translate to anything edible.
Inside, presented with an Eengaleesh menu, we find such delicacies as “cows guts grilled on an iron plate”, “gots bloods” and the like. As is often the case when I’m somewhere I don’t speak the language, I find it easiest to point at the thing the chef is cooking on a massive iron hot plate in front of us and smile at it in a useful sort of way.
What arrives about 10 minutes later is a happy surprise: a sort of flattened, side plate-sized fried hash of cabbage, bacon and cheese, splashed with a sweet creamy sauce, topped with a fried egg and served absolutely piping hot. We pick at it but we have no need to be a cautious; this is a big fatty dish, so warming and satisfying to eat – perhaps a Japanese version of our Bubble and Squeak, where you fry up anything left in the fridge.
Not having any idea what this is officially, we deduce from looking at labels on other photographs that it could be ‘gottsui’, pay our bill, walk out and, what with five hours spent singing our hearts out (I meant to try karaoke for 30 mins max), we forget about it.
Now it is October in Brixton Village, London: I find a little spot called Okan which calls itself a Japanese restaurant serving okonomiyaki, Japanese street food from Osaka. Thinking this could work for the blog, I read the menu and learn that okonomiyaki means “as you like it,” and is a dish traditionally served at festivals in cafés and homes. A savoury pancake made with cabbage and a batter base, served with a variety of toppings and finished with a special brown sauce, Japanese Mayo, green seaweed flakes and bonito shavings. Okan’s chef Moto had been serving this dish on street food stalls around Brick Lane since 2002 before setting up shop in Brixton Village over a year ago.
Recognising the similarity between this description and what we ate that evening in Tokyo, at Okan I order a special with kimchi, prawn, squid and sweet corn (£8.95). Now this is rather a fun dish to watch being prepared. As it goes through various stages of frying, layering and re-frying over just eight minutes, it also crackles and hisses angrily. This is what is set down in front of me:
Again this is a gorgeous pancakey hash. Prawns are huge, plump and juicy, the squid more compact, and the cabbage retains a squeaky crunch. A fiercely sweet brown sauce reminds me of our Worcestershire variety, and the little fish flakes sprinkled on top shrivel up from the heat. It’s easy food served in a charming setting with good service. Another good example of something moving from street to seat.
Find it at Unit 39, Brixton Village Market, SW9; Okanbrixtonvillage.com