The Tale of Taiyaki, Most Popular Street Snack in Japan

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  • The Tail of Taiyaki たい焼き

    Walking along the streets of Japan, it is likely that one will come across a snack stand touting these delicious fish waffles with various types of fillings. Tai 鯛 means sea bream and yaki 焼き means grill. It is a type of wagashi 和菓子 or Japanese sweet, and has humble origins from more than a century ago. It was derived from the round imagawayaki 今川焼き pancake, and used to be made in different animal shapes. The tai is a symbol of auspiciousness and prosperity, and the shape became popular and gained traction since the old times. The taiyaki was first made in 1909 in Naniwaya original store in Azabu-Juban, Tokyo, and has spawned many proprietary stores and chain franchise brands all across Japan. The traditional filling is sweet azuki bean paste or anko 餡, the same can be found in daifuku (大福) rice cakes. In 1976, a popular children’s song “Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun” meaning “Swim! Taiyaki” about a runaway pancake, brought on a wave of taiyaki fever.

    The taiyaki chef pours the batter into fish shaped iron skillet molds, adds the filling and more batter, and grills them on both sides. The tail, or shippo (尻尾) is the crispiest and also my favorite part! Interestingly, there is a hotly debated conundrum as to whether the tail should contain any filling or not. Some say it shouldn’t as the tail is for holding the pastry and is thrown away after you’re done eating (why throw the nicest part?!), some say it should because the taste is incomplete without the bean paste, and others say it shouldn’t because the blander dough cleanses the palate!

    What’s fun and unique is that proprietary stores have their own formula for the batter and cooking method, and hence the taiyaki from each of these stores may taste different. I personally have had some fluffier, softer ones with a cake-like texture, but I much prefer the ones with a thinner, crispier crust! Come to think of it, it is much like people’s tastes and preferences for pizza! Besides the original filling of red azuki bean paste, some modern variations include custard cream, chocolate, and apple cinnamon, as well as savory options like ham and cheese, or potato salad.

    White Taiyaki 白い鯛やき

    shiroi-taiyaki

    Made from tapioca flour, the white taiyaki is grilled the same way but is decidedly denser and chewier than its traditional counterpart. Onagaya 尾長屋 in Fukuoka prefecture pioneered it in 2007.

    Square shaped Taiyaki 四角い羽つき鯛焼き

    square-taiyaki

    The literal translation is winged or bladed 4-sided taiyaki. The additional batter is added and flattened by the waffle iron to create the square part. More crispy goodness for me!

    Mini Taiyaki

    mini-taiyaki

    Fun bite-sized fishies!

    Croissant Taiyaki

    crois-taiyaki

    Taiyaki with the buttery flakey richness of croissant, and a sugar glazed crust. This is one of the most popular types!

    Taiyaki Ice Cream Wafer Bar / Parfait

    ice-taiyaki

    A fresh take on the classic pairing of ice cream and waffles. A packaged version is also available at convenience stores!

    Carp streamer yaki in Saitama 鯉のぼり焼き

    carp-taiyaki

    Koi-nobori are carp streamers that are usually hung on the streets during festivals. Saitama prefecture makes taiyaki in carp shape!

    Whale yaki from Nagasaki 鯨焼き

    Devour cute whales from Nagasaki!

    Korea

    korea-taiyaki

    Taiyaki is also a popular street snack in Korea, known as the Bungeoppang, introduced by the Japanese in the 1930s. It literally means “carp bread”, and the red bean paste is called “pat”. On the Japanese Wikipedia page, it is oddly referred to as a “counterfeit version”.

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    Taiyaki: The “Sea Dreams” Snack