Going Japanese in Las Vegas: Japanese Pancakes

How about a quick trip around the world to shake you out of the winter doldrums? Maybe you are thinking that you don’t have the time or money to make such trip, but I have a very affordable alternative. Enjoy a long weekend in Las Vegas and you can experience the beauty of Venice’s canals, the majesty of the Eiffel tower, and the exquisite simplicity of a Japanese garden. Without risking a dime at the gaming tables, you can fill your days to the brim.

I begin my tour at the Bellagio Hotel. Under a magnificent dome of leaded glass, inspiring botanical displays change with the season, such as the serene Japanese garden pictured here. Soothe your nerves as you listen to the water cascading down rocks and then through bamboo flutes that empty into a pond banked with pines, fruit trees and pristine orange and lemon colored lilies.

Or stroll through manicured gardens on a stone path edged in ivy and classic Doric Columns. You will soon forget snowdrifts and the weary task of shoveling snow and scraping your windshield. Take your time, because you will want to be around for the grand water show outside.

Although the hourly shows begin in late afternoon, they are a kaleidoscope of color after dark. Light and music coax the fountains to come to life as they literally dance and sway in fluid motion.

The waterways that ribbon in and out of the Venetian Hotel down the street are just as beautiful as those in the classic Italian city, except these are clear blue instead of the darker hues of Venice’s byways. Singers from all over the world competed to earn their jobs as singing gondoliers, as their operatic voices prove.

You might think you are in the famed Sistine Chapel as you gaze at the domed painting above, framed by marble columns and alabaster cornices edged in gold. Clothed in flowing velvet, the cadre of singers looks like they have just walked off the stage of a Shakespeare play, the elegance of their voices matching their surroundings. They proceed to the piazza where we get a taste of Verdi and Mozart. And then a surprise. I had seen her earlier, what I thought was a marble statue of some past saint, a figure in white with a host of flowers strewn at her feet. Now I see she is a living breathing being who walks to the stage and freezes in several postures for our benefit.

This trip to Venice makes me dream of ancient Rome, and I only have to cross the strip to Caesar’s Palace to be there. The lofty pillars transport me to another time and I half expect to see a toga clad Roman Senator arguing some arcane political philosophy with his fellow. Or maybe I hear the echoes of steel against steel as two gladiators fight onto the death.

Inside I “…stroll through the beautiful landscape of ancient Rome, where a changing Mediterranean sky hovers above and a plethora of grand marble fountains, statuary, and columns fill the piazzas,” a case where the advertising hype is actually true. One such marvel is the fountain that retells the story of Atlantis and the tragic rivalry of his sparring children. Whether or not this rendition is faithful to the legend doesn’t matter, as the pomp and circumstance of the saga, told with caldrons of fire and mammoth gods rising from the waters fill me with awe.

Now fast-forward several centuries and I am in 19th century Paris with the Eiffel Tower at my feet. Though not as tall as the real thing, it is nonetheless quite grand. The exterior of the Paris Hotel is a splendid piece, complete with elaborate architectural details that somehow remind me of a very intricate iced cake, one that some dedicated pastry chef has labored days to create.

The interior is a street scene with cozy cafes and wrought iron spun into lace, where heady conversation and strong coffee are the order of the day. Like the other hotel malls, this is complete with a cerulean sky and wispy white clouds so real you think you are outdoors. Except that here you won’t have to watch out for careening cars, and where you might expect a street you have polished marble. And yes, the temperature is a permanent comfort zone all year round.

The Sphinx stands guard outside the fabulous Luxor Hotel, riveting me with her stare. I almost expect her to present me with the same riddle that doomed all except Oedipus. Behind her the tip of a grand pyramid pokes through the ground like a desert iceberg revealing itself in shades of glossy black.

Within the darkened interior I meet other statuary beasts that hold vigil over the hallways, imparting a sense of magnificence and cautionary dread. I wouldn’t want to cheat at craps in this place. The actual hotel rooms are in the pyramid itself and the elevator to the 27th floor went up "sideways" at a 51 degree angle! Getting out I felt a little like an astronaut just returning from orbit, wobbly knees and dizzy head.

The Rio Hotel, not to be outdone by the new arrivals, offers cocktail waitresses that sing and dance and a show suspended in the air like a three ring circus with wings. We watched from the balcony as all matter of vehicles paraded past – a hot air balloon dripping with lights, a winged Pegasus, and a pirate ship with sailors singing and dancing their hearts out. Downstairs the main stage was a mini trip to Broadway with generous portions of talent, youth, and enthusiasm.

To cap it off, we head to old downtown for the Fremont Street Experience, a Light and Sound show found nowhere else in the world. An electric canopy towers 90 feet above the four-block section. It houses 2.1 million lights and is run by 36 computers and 218 speakers. A kind of celestial cinema, it's as though the sky has transformed itself into a giant movie screen.

A word of caution here. Do not try to see all this in a single day. This virtual tour actually encompassed three days, and at the end of each of them, I was transported to Japan. But it was not at any glitzy hotel, but instead at the gracious home of my nephew, his lovely wife and their two delightful children.

Itsuko treated us to potstickers the first night, apologizing that the filling had been purchased at a Japanese grocery store instead of her own homemade version, which she said, contained more vegetables. She rolled each doughy morsel into a pastry purse and then fried them lightly in a pan until they were translucent. I am embarrassed to say that, in spite of the fact that I was the only one there who had not mastered the use of chopsticks, I nevertheless, consumed quite a few. You will find a recipe for these delights along with an earlier review of Kung Fu Hustle.

On the second night we had a kind of vegetable soup with tender slivers of pork. The cabbage and other vegetables cook first and the strips of pork are only added at the last minute so they stay tender. Here you see Itsuko adding the pork strips as daughter Delphi watches. It was another delicious dinner and quite a healthy one at that.

Our final night there, we had what Itsuko called Japanese Pancakes, though the real name is Okonomiyaki. Some people call it Japanese Pizza, too. What fun. Cooking with Itsuko is always an informal family affair with laughter and conversation around the table as we watch each new delight come to life before our eyes. She spoiled us, bringing my husband Gary his coffee each morning and refusing all my offers to help with cooking or the dishes. Definitely a Five Star Exerience!

Okonomiyaki or Japanese Pancakes

Okonomiyaki is one of the great Japanese foods not yet widely known outside Japan. "Okonomi" literally translates "as you like," reflecting the wide range of ingredients you can use in okonomiyaki. You will find several kinds of okonomiyaki mixes at your local Asian grocery store, but it is so simple to make from scratch that you wonder why these pre-mixed products exist. Some people claim that okonomiyaki is more of a "Japanese pizza" than a "Japanese pancake" on the grounds that okonomiyaki is not sweet. But because the ingredients are in the batter rather than on the crust, the general concensus seems to be that it's more of a Japanese pancake. Try it, and then you decide!

We used shrimp and vegetables in our okonomiyaki, but thinly sliced pork and other seafood or meats are also good. For the batter, you'll need:

  • 1 1/3 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp Hondashi (bonito flavored powdered soup stock)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 5 oz. shrimp, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 2 or 3 stalks green onion, chopped finely
  • 10 oz. cabbage, shredded

Mix 1/2 tsp. of hondashi in 1 1/3 cups of water and stir well. 

Add the dashi soup base to your flour. Then beat eggs, add to flour and stir until lumps are gone and batter is smooth.

Now, mix in the rest of your ingredients. The cabbage should be the last ingredient you add. (When you add the shredded cabbage the amount may seem a bit overwhelming, but once it is mixed in well, the cabbage will be coated with the batter and will settle into the mix.)

Drop a portion of batter onto an oiled and heated frying pan, 
and then smoosh it down to form a pancake-like disc. Fry over medium heat.

When the edges start changing color, it is ready to flip. The process is just like making a pancake. The other side should be golden in color.

Okonomiyaki is very easy and fun to cook. Even slight differences in ingredients will create big differences in flavor, so try experimenting with your own combinations. In Japan, you'll find specialized okonomiyaki restaurants with all sorts of great okonomiyaki variations on the menu.

Condiments are as essential to okonomiyaki as syrup is to pancakes. Typical items are Japanese mayonnaise, and a brown Japanese style sauce. (You'll find sauces made just for okonomiyaki at your Asian market, but we always use this very common vegetable and fruit sauce as it's a standard condiment for lots of the foods we eat.) You'll definitely want to have some katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and ao-nori (dried seaweed in flakey powder-like format) to sprinkle on top. These will truly enhance the flavor! We also love using a bit of Tabasco and/or red chili paste for extra spice.

Recipe source: Blue Tree Enterprises