If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting WakuWaku Eatery on Merrimon Avenue, you already know the amount of love and care that goes into each dish. The owner, Naomi Mikami, has poured her heart into this popular spot, and she’s excited to share a bit of her culture with Asheville. If you haven’t tried the okonomiyaki yet, finish reading this then make your way her restaurant for a real treat.
What was your biggest life-changing moment?
The Great East Japan Earthquake (2011) and the Great Hanshin Earthquake (1995). After the Great East Japan Earthquake, I thought I could do something to help people who suffered damages because I had experience from Hanshin. I was living in Akashi and was working in Kobe at that time.
But I soon realized and was disappointed that my experience was not helpful, especially considering the damage from the tsunami. I felt the powerlessness of human beings and the ephemerality of human life against natural disasters. But at the same time, I felt the great power of people trying to help each other and revive quickly. Those experiences made me think I should try anything I wanted to try.
Why did you decide to bring this kind of Japanese food to Asheville?
I had a chance to travel to some places in the U.S and other countries for both business and private, and I knew sushi, tempura and teriyaki were very popular in the world. Now ramen is becoming popular as well. I often saw articles that said Japanese foods are healthy so Japanese people have longevity. But I was thinking Japanese healthy foods are not sushi, tempura, teriyaki and ramen. We don’t eat those foods much in our daily lives. In 2013, Japanese food, “Washoku,” was added to UNESCO’s roster of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
“Washoku” is originally a word that combines “Wa,” meaning “Japan” with “Shoku,” meaning “eating” or “foods.” Washoku refers not only to Japanese cuisine but also to the dietary cultures of the Japanese people.
Why did you get involved in the food industry?
I spent about 30 years in total in the sporting goods industry at both Asics and Nike. I was happy to work at a company that helped people to be healthier via sports, but while exercise is one source of health, nutrition is another. I suffered from ITP [idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura] at the age of 5. The foods my grandma and mom made saved me from this illness.
My grandmother always said, “To spend money on good, quality ingredients is much better than to spend money on medicine.” Another theme of balance, which led me to take the leap into the restaurant business.
There were a couple of candidate areas, such as Portland, Oregon and Northern California, but since my close friend had been living in Asheville for more than 10 years, I had the chance to visit her frequently. She and I grew up in Kyoto, and she said, "Asheville is surrounded by mountains, and the river flows in the center and resembles our hometown.” It helps that there are many people here who are interested in food. So Asheville became the first place to experience my home-style foods.
What are your favorite things to do when you aren’t working?
I enjoy talking to people about travel, food and culture. I also love playing traditional Japanese instruments such as the Koto, spending time with my cat Mia, and visiting other restaurants in Asheville to try food that's new to me, especially Southern food.
2.40 pounds shredded cabbage
0.12 pound chopped green onion
0.12 pound julienned carrot
40 milliliters soy sauce
25 milliliters mirin (sweet cooking sake)
60 milliliters cooking sake
180 milliliters kombu stock
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Topping options ("okonomi" ＝ "as you like"):
Sauce and Toppings:
WAKUWAKU Sauce (or okonomiyaki sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, etc.)
Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)
Pickled red ginger
In a mixing bowl, combine all batter ingredients.
Using an electric mixer on low speed, mix well.
In a small bowl, prepare the vegetables by layering:
- 50 milliliters mixed batter
- 0.3 pound shredded cabbage
- 0.02 pound chopped green onion
- 0.02 pound julienned carrot
- 30-milliliter sprinkle batter
- 0.1 pound covered with shredded cabbage
- 50 milliliters covered with batter
Heat oil on medium heat on a griddle or frying pan.
When the griddle or frying pan is hot (400 F/200 C), flip the small bowl onto the heated surface. Spread ingredients into a circle.
Place toppings on top of okonomiyaki (I recommend adding a little additional batter on the topping for mushroom, kimchi and/or natto.)
When the bottom side is nicely browned, flip over.
Cook for another 4 to 5 minutes.
Flip over one last time, making sure the cabbage is well cooked.
If you like crispy texture, cook for another 1 to 2 minutes.
Step 3 (Serving)
Apply WAKUWAKU sauce or okonomiyaki sauce.
Sprinkle dried benito flakes.
Add pickled red ginger.
Note: "Okonomiyaki" means “grilled as you like it,” and the Japanese enjoy cooking at home. Each family has a different recipe and preference of ingredients.