On one of my first visits to a Japanese restaurant in the UK I daringly ordered something called ‘octopus balls’ and imagined myself to be chowing down on the nether regions of some poor mollusk. However, I now realize that what I must have been eating was takoyaki (たこ焼き), a fishy snack that was popularized in Osaka.
The invention of the snack is credited to Tomekichi Endo who came up with the idea in 1935. The street vendor was inspired by a similar snack that incorporates octopus meat with an eggy batter. At first, the snack was only available in Kansai, but these days the delicacy is so popular that you can get hold of it all over in Japan, even in places like convenience stores and major supermarkets.
Tako (たこ）means octopus and Yaki (焼き) means baked, grill or fried, though ‘takoyaki’ tends to be translated as ‘octopus dumplings’. The main ingredients in the snack are pieces of diced octopus and a wheat-flour batter, along with some green onion, pickled ginger and tenkasu.
The signature feature of takoyaki is the pan in which they are cooked which looks like a giant egg tray. The first part of making them is to swab the little circular holes with plenty of oil (sometimes the chef will use a neat little oil-soaked sponge to daub it on speedy-style.) Then the batter goes in and fills the holes about halfway. After that, a large piece (or a couple of smaller pieces) of octopus are dropped into the hole, and then a smattering of green onion, pickled ginger and tenkasu. Finally, another glug of batter goes on and covers the whole thing.
As the batter cooks, the vendor will use pointy chopsticks to separate the mixture a bit between the balls, and once the lower part of the octopus ball is cooked he will spear it and flip it over so that the other side can cook and form into a perfect sphere shape. After this turn they will get speared and flipped a few more times to make sure they are perfectly spherical and golden brown all over – it’s quite something to watch the super ninja skills of the street vendor spearing and flipping ten rows of balls in a matter of seconds, one chopstick in each hand.
After they’ve finished cooking, there are a variety of ways to serve the takoyaki. A typical topping includes the traditional takoyaki sauce (which is quite similar to worcestershire sauce) and bonito flakes, as well as mayonnaise – quite like the toppings of that other popular Japanese snack, okonomiyaki. Other good choices are a creamy sesame sauce or ponzu mayonnaise, which has a lemony/yuzu flavour to it.
Takoyaki is one of those snacks that is really popular here in Japan but is basically unheard of outside of the country, though it is becoming more popular to see them on the menu at Japanese restaurants. If you’re the kind of person who likes to indulge in a kebab or greasy burger after a night on the town, forego your usual treat for something with a bit more of an Asian twist to it – takoyaki make for the perfect midnight snack!