Roadside dining options in the United States tend to depress me. I usually end up at burger-and-shake stops looking for a token veggie burger or a milkshake, or at some poor satire of a Mexican restaurant serving things made with canned black olives, reconstituted refried beans, salsa from foodservice jars or ketchup-like portion packs, and piles of yellow Cheddar cheese.

In Japan, the toll highway system creates a captive audience for restaurants at various highway turnouts, much like spiffed up highway rest stops. Most of these places have one or two full service family-style restaurants, a cafeteria-style quick service option that usually includes ramen, soba or udon as options, and then, most importantly, little yatai-style vendors at the front of these facilities selling tai-yaki (fish-shaped, generally bean paste stuffed, waffles), mitarashi-dango or various things on sticks.

In all fairness, the quality of cuisine at highway “service areas” in Japan is not much better than the US; it’s sometimes equally artificial, full of stale flavor-enhanced instant katsuo-dashi, mostly prepared in advance by foodservice manufacturers. However, the options are a little more diverse. And those yatai in front of these facilities often offer comforting snacks that I sometimes actively crave.

A few years ago, I finally discovered my roadside snack of choice. Atypically for Japan, they are quite often vegetarian; some of them even eschew the ubiquitous katsuo-dashi flavor base. They are not fancy, and are not usually particularly inspired flavors, but are somehow comforting. They are quite filling and usually reasonably inexpensive.

Oyaki cooking in a cast-iron pan

Oyaki on the pan

Oyaki can be considered a simpler form of Chinese stuffed buns (baozi, called humbow in Cantonese, nikuman or anman in Japanese), but unlike baozi, the dough is not made with yeast. They are a little more like certain types of stuffed pancakes (turnip cakes, sesame cakes, etc) only with an even less elaborate dough-making technique. In fact, there’s little to this dough; it’s just a sticky dough of flour and warm water, maybe with a bit of salt. No yeast, no baking powder, and minimal waiting.

Unlike baozi, oyaki are typically grilled on a cast-iron pan, ideally over an open fire. At an indoor “service area” stall, they will be cooked on a gas burner. Some recipes actually have them steamed, but this seems to defeat the concept of “oyaki”; steaming could help them cook more evenly, if they are finished on the grill.

My favorite filling is probably kabocha, which is just an absolute carbohydrate-loading feast. But I also like the classic nozawa-na (turnip greens) version. Alas, after my recent jiaozi-making adventure, I had a bit of a mismatch between the amount of my mustard greens filling and my skins, so I decided to use the remaining filling for my oyaki. I also remembered I had a small stash of turnips in my refrigerator, and some spring onions, and so I grated a turnip with a nifty micro-plane until it was the texture of oroshi-daikon or nagaimo. I seasoned the mix with a bit of miso and soy sauce.

I made a dough in the same way as noodles: I placed a bit of flour in a bowl, and made a well in the flour and filled it with some warm water; in this case, I added a pinch of salt. I kneaded the dough until it was cooperative: sticky and mostly smooth. Ideally, it should rest a bit, but I quickly went ahead and divided my dough with a dough cutter, and rolled the dough very thin.

Plated Karashi-na to kabu no oyaki

Plated oyaki

I am not particularly skilled in the art of making oyaki. I filled each round of dough and brought the ends together, twisting them and then pressed as close to flat as possible. Little to no oil is required; they just need to be added to a hot, heavy pan on a medium flame. They are cooked for a few minutes on each side, and the process of flipping and cooking is continued until the dough looks cooked and then browned.

It seems that one or two of them suffered from minor structural flaws, which resulted in tiny eruptions. I think a pinprick on the side of each oyaki would help release steam.