Takoyaki : (“tako” is octopus, and “yaki” is “grilled” or “cooked”)
This is another Japanese favorite, a small round dumpling made with batter and octopus. It was first popularized in Osaka when a street vendor named Endo Tomekichi came up with it in 1935. It has since become one of the food icons of Osaka (the others being okonomiyaki and yakisoba). Takoyaki is known as a very inexpensive snack, bought either from a street vendor or a small shop called issen-yoshoku, which translates roughly into “one-penny Western food”, so they are very popular with students and young dating couples. We first encountered it as this popular street food, a delicious aroma wafting in the air as we passed the stall. The vendor cooks the takoyaki on a grill and hands them to customers on a stick to eat, like a mini kebab, or the customers pick up the tasty morsels with a toothpick.
But we then discovered that many Japanese families have a special takoyaki maker at home and love to bring it out. It’s a bit like a cast-iron electric muffin pan, except the molds are half-spherical, about golf-ball size.
We watched a group of students make some and there’s quite an art to doing it. They turn on the takoyaki maker, oil it, and, when it is very hot, spoon the batter mixture in, which doesn’t need to be tidily done! They add pieces of boiled octopus and any other ingredients to each. Then, with chopsticks or a special takoyaki spike, they clean up the spilled edges, loosen the balls, and eventually turn them so they are cooked all over. They put a batch on a plate, drizzle with brown okonomiyaki sauce, some special Japanese mayonnaise, a shaking of aonori (green seaweed powder) and flakes of dried fish (likely bonito). Dee-lish!
The original Osaka takoyaki had only batter and octopus without any sauces or toppings. Ingredients can vary nowadays, but the basic are: the batter, pieces of chopped boiled octopus, chopped green onion, and red pickled ginger.
An interesting point about Japanese cuisine and foods is the strong regional pride in their individual variations. We heard again and again phrases like, “In my home town we do such-and-such, or we add…” or “In my prefecture, it’s a bit different.” Often the differences are small and subtle and we, as Western visitors, may not always notice them until they’re pointed out to us. For example, the different soup base used for various noodles, especially ramen noodles, may be lighter or darker, have more or less soy sauce, have added miso etc.
So it is with takoyaki. We watched it made in a home in Hokkaido but the students were from many different parts of Japan so we heard about many possible variations, especially in how to make the batter and different possible sauces. Some also add tempura bits and shrimp.
Thanks to all our student chefs!!
For me, what’s really interesting is that these octopus balls have an unusual combination of savory ingredients: dashi stock is commonly used as the liquid for the batter; the filling includes raw, cooked, and pickled items; and typical toppings are mayonnaise, seaweed, shaved bonito flakes and tonkatsu sauce, which tastes like Worcestershire sauce. All of these seemingly disparate ingredients give takoyaki a savory, rich, tangy, sea-like taste. These savory balls seem to me to be a symbol of Japan’s unique cooking culture in which it builds layer upon layer of subtlety to create many wonderful foods.
(See below for pics that show the making of these takoyakis. Click on each for a larger view)