Monday, June 13, 2011

Portable Octopus

All---

Tanaka Jun popped a takoyaki into his mouth, took the toothpick which had speared it, and flicked it over his shoulder.  from "Kansai Oniisan," (c) C. N. Nevets, 2011


Takoyaki,
photo by Keith Pomakis on 2004-09-18
At the open of my story, "Kansai Oniisan," from the upcoming anthology Stories for Sendai, the main character partakes of a snack-sized Japanese food called takoyaki.  What exactly is takoyaki?

Takoyaki is the answer to the age old question:

So you got a hankering for some octopus, but you don't feel like lugging the whole thing around, what're you gonna do?

You're going to get Takoyaki.

Often compared to dumplings, takoyaki (tako = octopus; yaki = a frying technique) are essentially pan-fried spheres of bread, filled with octopus and a variety of strong Japanese flavorings.  

The octopus part of the dish can be anything from a small cutting of boiled octopus to an entire baby octopus, preferably in the center.  The batter is flavored in a typical Japanese fashion -- infused with dashi stock and shot through with bits of pickled ginger, green onion, aonori seaweed, katsuobushi flakes, even red shrimp.  There is a lot of variety in the filling and flavoring, but there is even more variety in the topping.  Some takoyaki are eaten essentially plain or with a thin dipping sauce.   Others are topped more complexly with daikon and mayonnaise or more.

The dish seems to have originated in Osaka, the Kansai town where my story takes place.  As is characteristic of Osaka food variety is encouraged, as long as the end product is a full-on sensory experience of taste, aroma, and (literal) heat.  It is served all over Japan, but in the minds of many, it is strongly characteristic of Osaka.

Takoyaki stands,
photo by Onilx
There are a lot of cultural and social trapping that go along with takoyaki.  Most often, it is perceived as a street snack, and is commonly purchased at stands harken more to old county fair booths than they do to hot dog stands.  The takoyaki are actually prepared in the stand, cooked on in fry-pants that are reminiscent of muffin tins.  Typical of Asian street food, there are often a couple of small seats around the stand and perhaps a bar to stand at, but the food is also easily served up into portable, plastic containers or paper baskets.  The stands serve as easy, casual meeting places for couples who are not yet ready for public dating or private meetings together.  They can serve as neighborhood anchor points.  They also serve as places to get some snack food, especially in food-crazed Osaka, whose Dotonbori district is often characteristics by a motto that can be translated as, "Eat yourself to ruin with joyful gluttony."

(image from the public domain)
While they are rarely served in restaurants, Takoyaki are not limited to street vendors, of course, and can be prepared at home, though I'm not clear if they would be prepared as a personal snack, a family snack, or more as a party food.  They are, however, a common food at neighborhood and club festivals, where they are not prepared by professional chefs but brought and prepared by individuals, rather like the man at church who makes the cotton candy or the lady at the PTA who brings her own popcorn cart.

As with most Japanese arts, clean presentation and intentional design are important.  Smooth sphere sheers with clean edges are valued.  Efforts are taken to minimize the waffle-iron batter effect so that when the balls are topped and presented, the person who is about to eat feels as if they are receiving a gift, something that shows appreciation and respect for them and which demands that they show appreciation and respect back to the preparer.

They can be eaten with small sticks, similar to toothpicks, or with chopsticks in the usual way.  Takoyaki may also be served up like a kabab, a group of them skewered on a chopstick.  (Apparently not every street vendor in Japan has read the etiquette books which tell us to never, ever use our chopsticks as a spear!)

So the next time you want the yumminess of octopus without all the hassle of lugging around a full-grown animal, you know what to do: grab some takoyaki.

.Nevets.


11 comments:

  1. I've never had takoyaki but your post made my mouth water. Yes, all you octopus-avoiders out there: octopus tastes great

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  2. @Yat-Yee - I've never had it either, though I hope to make some (perhaps octopus free) at home sometime this summer. I believe you about the taste of octopus. I'm not sure about some allergy implications, and I have some real texture issue - but I'm not a basher, by any means.

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  3. I have never had it- it looks yummy but doesn't sound yummy lol

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  4. @Summer - I will admit that with all my allergies and texture problems, I'm a bit of a culinary wimp so it does, at least, sound intimidating.

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  5. I am a huge seafood lover. I never met a sea animal that wasn't delicious. I also attend Japanese festivals for the food (and Orion!). That said, these are the most disgusting things I've ever eaten. The picture makes me remember how god-awful they taste and I'm swallowing back vomit as I type. They're that gross.

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  6. @Heather - Knowing some of what you ate with gusto in Okinawa, that's a pretty big testament. I've also seen video of what Bekah eats, though, so if she concurs, then I'll know they're absolutely inedible. Of course, have seen what she eats, I'm not sure her liking would tell me much...

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  7. I'd always wanted some octopus, but the little suckers kept getting stuck in my hair! Such a pain to haul around on my back. And let's not even go into the ink sack bit. ;)

    Takoyaki looks seriously yummy. New thing to try on my list!

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  8. Takoyaki looks good! I've never eaten octopus before--I'm a little wary of it.

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  9. Ohh yum! I'd LOVE to try takoyaki! Octopus is yummy! Kinda like squid/calamari but with a slightly less chewy texture! :)

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  10. In fact, octopus has lots of texture on the outside, but virtually none on the inside. Not on my recommended list of foods I've tried. Though if you get the tiny, spider-sized ones, you can drown them in sauce. -- And forget about the idea that you should never use your chopsticks as spears. That is the method by which millions of Chinese people eat the spherical masses in their fish ball soup. Neither octopus nor fish balls will ever be confused with chicken.

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