Takoyaki Recipes Offer Insights into Japan’s Culinary History

Street food tell amazing stories about their countries of origins, but they’re often looked down on by high-brow foodies and dismissed by historians. But specialty dishes served in fancy restaurants don’t accurately represent the flavor palette and history of a single region, much less an entire country. Such nuance can be discovered with a single bite of select street foods.

A single taste of a perfectly executed takoyaki recipe can give you amazing insight on the intricacies of Japanese food. This humble street fair may not seem overtly impressive, but there’s a reason it one of the most recognizable samples of anime food in pop culture. Aside from its popularity, takoyaki’s history provides an interesting window into Japanese history.

Takoyaki in Popular Culture

Takoyaki grills are ubiquitous in Japan. Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Takoyaki may seem like a simple dish at first glance. A ball of wheat batter filled with bits of minced octopus and drizzled with mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce does not sound like a historic meal. But the explosion of popularity of takoyaki recipes attests to its appeal. Many foodies who are aficionados of Japanese pop culture now own distinctive takoyaki grills with their hemispherical molds.

To contemplate the popularity of takoyaki, just take a look at one popular Japanese export: anime. Japan is well known for its distinctive animation style and takoyaki has made many notable appearances in popular anime. For example, “Demon Slayer” is one of the most watched anime of recent years, especially now that viewers can access it on international streaming services such as Netflix. The anime is so popular, it’s even released tie-in takoyaki boxes. These scrumptious snacks feature the characters of the anime as well as themed takoyaki recipes that evoke their appearance.

The perception of takoyaki in media also shifts from country to country. In its native Japan, takoyaki is seen as street food. This is also reflected in its portrayal in anime. Although the scrumptious octopus balls are lovingly rendered in these shows, they aren’t really seen as anything mind-blowing.

This perception changes when takoyaki is shown in Western media. Takoyaki makes an appearance in the hit police comedy “Brooklyn 9-9”. In the episode “Boyle’s Hunch,” foodie Charles Boyle enjoys takoyaki and even finds a girlfriend thanks to the fried snack. Meanwhile, the series’ protagonists takes a couple of bites of the takoyaki and rejects them as “fish donuts.” This implies that takoyaki is for the discerning and the cultured, making it seem exotic and uplifted.

But takoyaki really is street food, but it is not just street food. No street food should be dismissed just because of their humble origins and ingredients. The history of takoyaki is as fascinating as those of more expensive meals.

What is the History of Takoyaki?

Takoyaki recipes are a staple in yutai or mobile food stalls in Japan. Photo by Akira Deng on Unsplash

As its own distinct meal, takoyaki’s history makes it even younger than spicy ramen. While the delicious noodle recipe (probably) made its debut in Japanese food in the late 19th century, takoyaki wasn’t invented until 1935.

Prior to the first takoyaki recipe, there was already a batter-and-octopus snack called akashiyaki. This delicate dumpling was made in the city of Akashi. Its batter was rich with eggs, giving it a creamier bite. In 1935, a street vendor from Osaka, Tomekichi Endo, visited Akashi and sampled their signature snack. Endo was enamored by the snack but thought that the recipe could be improved.

Endo is the beginning of takoyaki’s history because would successfully create the first takoyaki recipe, varying greatly from akashiyaki in many ways.

First, takoyaki uses a thinner wheat-based batter. This means that each bite is lighter and airier. Second, akashiyaki was dipped in dashi, the traditional umami broth of Japan. Takoyaki sauce is thicker, richer and features bolder umami flavors. This is because the sauce uses both Worcestershire sauce and mentsuyu, a soup base made of sake, soy sauce, kombu and mirin. This packs a whole different punch in terms of both salt and savory flavors. This sauce is slathered unto the crispy, fluffy morsels after they come out of their molds in the takoyaki grill.

The snack was an instant hit. Takoyaki recipes first became popular in its hometown of Osaka. The abundant seafood supply form its coasts ensured that vendors could stuff the snacks to bursting with octopus. It soon spread through the entire Kansai region before becoming popular throughout Japan. Takoyaki became a staple offering of yutai cards, Japan’s distinctive mobile food stands. Vendors would often offer steaming spicy ramen alongside smoking takoyaki grills filled with crispy morsels.

Today, takoyaki’s history is fondly remembered and it’s honored in Osaka. Takoyaki recipes litter the internet. Variations of Endo’s original recipe abound, some stuffing the batter with shrimp or with bacon. Takoyaki can also be purchased from convenience stores or ordered in distinguished restaurants.

But through all its iterations, takoyaki remains a street food at heart. This is by no means an insult because it represents so much heart and warmth and cleverness. One bite of the perfect takoyaki will tell you all you need to know about Japanese food.

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