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
photo by Keith Pomakis on 2004-09-18
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.
photo by Onilx
|(image from the public domain)|
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.