What is Takoyaki?
Dotted throughout Japan are stalls and shops dedicated to a little ball-shaped snack made of wheat flour batter known as takoyaki. Filled with diced octopus (tako), tempura pieces (tenkasu), pickled red ginger (beni shoga) and green onion, takoyaki are the perfect street food. They are cooked in special moulded pans and are usually served in packs of 6-10. Brushed with mayonnaise and a Worcestershire-style sauce, takoyaki come with a sprinkle of green laver (aonori) and dried bonito flakes on top and are intimately associated with the city of Osaka.
While the history of battered foods in Japan dates back to the arrival of French cuisine in the 1600s, a man in Osaka by the name of Tomekichi Endo is credited with inventing takoyaki itself in 1935. Up until then, a similar dish that used soy sauce flavoured beef was being sold. This dish, known as rajioyaki, evolved from an earlier one called choboyaki that used konjac (konnyaku).
The story goes that a man from the town of Akashi was visiting Osaka at the time. He mentioned that where he was from, octopus was used instead of beef. Akashiyaki, the dish that he was referring to, was similar to rajioyaki except that it was softer and eggier in texture, and was dipped into a thin fish broth before eating. This off hand comment by the stranger seemingly was enough to inspire Endo to replace the beef used in rajioyaki and with octopus and to also remove the dipping broth.
Prior to World War II, this takoyaki was eaten by the majority without any sauce. Even now, there are any number of places that continue to sell it plain. After the war, however, a variation of Worcestershire sauce was introduced and with its tangy flavour, helped to increase the popularity of the dish. This popularity accelerated even further once it began to be featured in weekly magazines and at 10 yen for around 4-6 ball, the thousands of locations thought to be selling takoyaki at the time must have been doing a roaring trade.
From the mid-1960s onwards, takoyaki sales and promotion really boomed. In Tokyo’s Ginza district, takoyaki stalls were earning a measure of popularity through their use of shrimp paste while the late 1970s saw the first franchise store open in Fukuoka Prefecture. Takoyaki hotplates for home use started gaining traction during the 1980s and onwards. Now, you would be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t held a takoyaki home party. In fact, homemade takoyaki may very well be just as commonly eaten as store bought ones.
Takoyaki has even gained popularity overseas in Taiwan. There, wasabi infused green sauces and mayonnaise feature while in Hong Kong and mainland China, chain stores continue to do a decent trade.
Takoyaki balls are not only sold in street stalls, corner shops and at fesitvals but they are now also found in supermarkets, convenience stores and izakaya pubs. Even domestic life has gotten in on the act as families make use of their own portable takoyaki hotplates to make their own versions. Takoyaki is everywhere.
So Many Ingredients
At its simplest, takoyaki are dollops of wheat batter cooked into little balls on a moulded grill plate. The batter, though, is made with any one of Japan’s dashi stocks such as bonito or konbu (kelp). In addition, kakushi aji, or hidden flavours, like soy sauce, milk, mirin (a kind of naturally sweet rice wine) and baking powder, give takoyaki batter a flavour and texture that changes depending on from where it is bought.
Takoyaki isn’t really takoyaki without octopus. The octopus used is boiled and diced, though you will find some places opting to use minced octopus instead. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to use octopus and in fact, you can find many places that use sausages, frankfurts, mushrooms, bacon, shrimp, fishcake and scores of other differing ingredients.
Adding tenkasu helps give takoyaki a richer and more umami flavour. It also provides a bit of crispiness to the dish that cuts through takoyaki’s creamy insides. Pickled red ginger (beni shoga) acts in much the same way by giving the takoyaki a little kick. They also add aesthetic appeal with their colour as does the addition of green onion.
The Worcestershire-like sauce is called takoyaki sauce and is brushed on top of the balls to give them a sweet, tangy taste. A squirt of Japanese mayonnaise follows with its own creamy tanginess and sweetness.
There is also a sprinkle of aonori (green laver) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) that helps complete the dish. Aonori gives takoyaki a distinctively enticing aroma. Watching the bonito flakes dance as they shimmer from the heat is almost hypnotic but aside from that, they also give takoyaki a great accent to its flavour.
And then there is cabbage. Excluding Osaka, almost everybody includes cabbage. From Kyushu in the far west, on through other parts of Kansai, northern Hyohgo, past Kanto and into Tohoku and Hokkaido, in fact everywhere you go, everybody uses it. Not Osaka though.
Takoyaki has a famous cousin, okonomiyaki, a savoury-like pancake. The name means ‘what you like, cooked how you like’ and is cooked with whatever ingredients you want. Made with, among other things, batter, octopus and cabbage, okonomiyaki has some similarities with takoyaki. But many in Osaka consider it a heresy to call takoyaki “merely a round okonomiyaki”…
There are always regional variations when it comes to Japanese cuisine. In fact, these regional differences are one of the major drawcards for lovers of Japanese food and takoyaki is no exception.
In Nagano Prefecture, the custom is to use the mild flavour of hakusai or Chinese cabbage in their takoyaki. On the other side of the country in Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture, their takoyaki features onion (tamanegi).
In between Nagano and Awaji Island, the takoyaki of Nagoya hearkens back to the original rajioyaki and is often served without any sauce. They even forgo the usual toppings of mayonnaise, bonito and green laver. The flavour of these takoyaki is more soy sauce driven than the more common tangy takoyaki sauce.
With over 650 locations selling it, even Osaka has takoyaki that can vary. Cheese fillings are popular and there is even a stall at Osaka Castle that has sells black takoyaki. Known as ninja takoyaki, it has a distinctive jet-black colour which comes from squid ink that has been mixed in with the batter. Osaka also offers a takoyaki ponzu sauce, a citrus-based sauce that is considered to be especially refreshing in the heat of summer.
Kobe takoyaki is different to Osaka’s in that their basic version is simply batter and octopus. In this way, it is somewhat similar to the old akashiyaki style but in Kobe, the takoyaki is sometimes brushed with a dashi and sauce.
In Nagasaki Prefecture, they have chokoyaki, a little cup-like dish that they say has been feeding the prefecture’s residents for over a century. Cooked with the same moulded grills as takoyaki, chokoyaki is instead made with a minced fish paste, egg, sugar, sake and salt.
Created in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, but now found as far away as Taiwan, bakudan yaki is eight times larger than the usual takoyaki. It is actually quite large and its name means, ‘grilled bomb‘. It looks like one too, and with its massive mix of batter and fillings, it’s easy to imagine the whole thing exploding as you eat it. The store pushes the boundaries of takoyaki fillings with offerings that include spicy hot kimichi, curry, teriyaki, fish roe, wasabi & mayonnaise and even a pizza takoyaki with tomato sauce.
As a kind of cultural and culinary melting pot for Japan, Tokyo plays host to many kinds of takoyaki. In laidback Shimokitazawa, for example, their stores compete with each other leading to the usual sized takoyaki but with batters ranging all the way from traditional crispy to watery and gooey. In Odaiba, there is even a Takoyaki Musuem which is basically a specialised takoyaki food court where you can try different styles of takoyaki.
Probably the most varied and interesting styles are the homemade takoyaki. With literally nothing to hold one’s imagination back, the range of ingredients known to be used at home is mind blowing – shrimp, sausages, cheese, squid, beef, fermented soy beans (natto), chocolate, marshmallow, fruit… the list goes on and on.
Takoyaki represents all that is good about Japanese snack foods. It is a snack that has comfortably made the transition from local cuisine to national pride and on to international fame. Easy to make, easy to adapt, and ever so easy to enjoy, takoyaki balls are one of the easiest ways to satisfy a hunger pang. There is a lot of takoyaki out there so the next time you are in Japan, and wandering the streets looking for a tasty treat, head to your nearest takoyaki stall and try some. You will definitely be spoiled for choice.