Takoyaki: Icon of Osaka たこ焼き
by Alan Wiren
To the city of Osaka, takoyaki means more than the hot dog to Coney Island.
First, eating these piping hot little balls of fried batter, formed around chunks of boiled octopus, is an integral part of being there.
Osaka's streets are dotted with takoyaki shops that are often circled by students and dating couples poking toothpicks into golf ball sized confections covered in sauce and mayonnaise.
Virtually every home in and around the city of Osaka in Kansai owns the special takoyaki grill, with hemispherical pockets, needed to make takoyaki.
Osaka means takoyaki
Ask an Osaka resident what is the characteristic food of his region and takoyaki is sure to be among the first three things he will name. Yakisoba (grilled buckwheat noodles) and okonomiyaki (sometimes referred to as "Japanese pizza ") will be the others.
The latter are meals in themselves. It is the snack, the quintessential comfort food, takoyaki, that has become an icon of the city.
It might seem curious that, although Japan is a nation whose staple food is rice, all three of the above dishes are made with some kind of wheat.
Until quite recently, Japan was never able to produce enough rice to supply her whole population, and wheat or buckwheat, in one form or another, supplemented the Japanese diet.
During the seventeenth century, French cuisine gained influence in Japan. Something like a crepe, with a thin batter of flour and water covered with a paste made from sweet beans, grilled and rolled up, became popular in both Tokyo and Osaka.
Two disasters of the twentieth century caused wheat flour to gain a more central place in Japanese cuisine. The Tokyo Earthquake in 1923 left food shortages in the greater Tokyo area and many people turned to the cheap commodities of flour and water to satisfy their hunger. In the aftermath of World War II, wheat flour was sent to Japan by the United States as relief.
The Japanese were already used to mixing flour and water to provide a base, topping it with flavorful accents or sauce. They used the flour from overseas this way. Even now this kind of simple, crepe-like food can be found in shops called issen-yoshoku which roughly translates to "one-penny Western food".
As the nation began to recover, the batter-based dishes were not abandoned. In one branch of their evolution, more items, including eggs, meat, and seafood, were added to the mix. This eventually became a kind of egg pancake, grilled on a flat surface, which is okonomiyaki.
In another line of development batter-based food became a confection called choboyaki. The batter was formed into balls a little bigger than large glass marbles, and grilled in special pans with hemispherical depressions to hold the balls. A special grill was also used that would hold the pan in one of two positions. One above the heat to cook the bottoms, and one beneath to cook the tops.
Endo Tomekichi is credited with the invention of takoyaki. He was a street vendor in Osaka, who sold choboyaki from a cart. As had been done with okonomiyaki, he began to experiment with new ingredients for the batter balls.
At the time, in the city of Akashi, in the prefecture of Hyogo, just to the west of Osaka, a popular treat called akashiyaki, was being sold. It was a piece of boiled octopus, surrounded by a loose, eggy batter, and accompanied by a clear broth that could be used for dipping.
Octopus were plentiful in the Seto Inland Sea, and in 1935 Endo tried putting octopus in his choboyaki and adding a flavoring to the batter. The new snack proved to be a milestone.
Endo's success allowed him to open a shop in the Nishinari ward of Osaka City called Aizuya. which still serves the firm, dry batter balls with a chunk of octopus tentacle inside that is the quintessential form of takoyaki. In the original recipe there were no other ingredients, toppings, or sauces.
Not only was Endo's invention a popular success, it was to become the mascot of its home city.
You can find takoyaki in its many variations throughout modern-day Japan, but in Osaka's gift shops and department stores you can buy takoyaki paraphernalia such as key chains, dolls, cell phone straps, even takoyaki-shaped computer memory devices.
Ironically, one of the best places to introduce yourself to the many faces of takoyaki is just outside of Universal Studios Japan.
An overwhelming number of visitors to Osaka's thoroughly Hollywood theme park said they were disappointed there was nowhere in the area where they could sample genuine takoyaki. Universal City Walk, just outside USJ, responded by opening the Takoyaki Museum in July 2006
The "museum" consists of five vendors, branches of takoyaki shops in Osaka, where you can review takoyaki history, sample the variations that have come about since 1935, and pick up souvenirs, all under one roof. You could start with the Kukuro branch. They offer takoyaki's predecessor, akashiyaki, and takoyaki with a dark and piquant sauce.
The chefs there all wear name tags that display a rating of their skill on a scale of one to five stars, and it is fascinating to watch the masters turning steaming batter balls with needle-pointed steel chopsticks at lightning speed.
There is a branch of Aizuya there, still selling the original product. The other branches offer more recent variations. The Kougaryu branch from Amerika-mura serves takoyaki with a sweet sauce and plenty of mayonnaise, a variety popular among the younger generation of Japanese.
The Imotako branch includes little chunks of potato in their recipe, and the Juhachiban branch adds generous quantities of milk and dried shrimp to their batter. The gift shop sells frozen takoyaki, takoyaki mascots and trinkets, equipment for making takoyaki, and dry confections made to look and taste similar to the real thing.
Whether you begin your appreciation of takoyaki at the Takoyaki Museum or in the wider ranges of the city of Osaka, or even somewhere else in Japan, be careful not to bite in too soon. That little chunk of octopus remains unexpectedly hot for a long while. I invariably burn my tongue, but keep coming back for more.
Other Japan articles by Alan Wiren
'To the Winner Goes the Eye': Katsuoji Temple
Soy Sauce: An Honorable Savor
Japanese Lacquerware: the lustrous charm of urushi
Shodoshima - Japan's Olive Island
Mobile Phones - keitai
Ebisu & Daikoku: Bringing Home the Bounty
Japanese Seaweed: Essence and Accents from the Sea
Japanese Green Tea
Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto
Hamamatsu Festival: the Children's Battle
Takoyaki: Icon of Osaka
Muroji Temple, Nara: A Dragon Runs Through It
Instant Noodles Museum
Wakayama Marina City
Living the Echizen Style