So what did Santa bring you? I bet it wasn’t an Osaka-style octopus ball kit. With all the responsibility such a gift bestows. Especially, post-Christmas in the Pennines, when fresh cephalods are thin on the ground and my store cupboard kombu looks as frazzled as me.
Still can’t complain. This portal into the gooey street food world of Takoyaki is the latest in a series of surprise prezzies from my brother, always keen to encourage my Japanese culinary skills.
Takoyaki, literally translates as ‘octopus fried’, but they’re more than that – golf ball sized piping hot, crispy doughnuts, a dashi batter encasing a squidgy filling of octopus tentacle, benishoga (pickled ginger), spring onion, a soupcon of soy maybe. This iconic dish originated in the late night stalls of party city Osaka, but you’ll find it all over Japan. The batter is poured into griddle moulds, the filling follows, each sphere being flipped with skewers until sealed. Street theatre as much as street food.
How could I match that? Well, New Year, new challenge, so I gathered the necessary raw materials, substituting prawns for octopus. Both have recently been acknowledged as ‘sentient beings’, so I may have to recalibrate either ingredient in future.
As part of my kit, my sibling had provided addictively creamy Kewpie mayo and his own gloopy blend of Takoyaki sauce, featuring Worcestershire sauce, mirin, sake, ginger, garlic and sugar, both to be squirted over the piping hot crispy batter balls.
To get there I used my dinky black cast iron pan with 16 semi-spherical moulds. There are electrical versions, but mine was the traditional model that sits on the stove top. My one fear was it would not reach the necessary sizzling point on the Aga ring. It did take longer than expected, but it worked out deliciously well.
Firstly, I had to assemble the batter, which entailed making my own simple dashi stock by steeping kombu (kelp seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) in water for several hours. This is not a quick fix, though, in a rush, you could substitute dashi powder in the batter mix – which is 200ml dashi, 100g flour and one beaten egg, thoroughly mixed but on the thin side. Oil the moulds well to encourage a savoury browning and when they are served take care: the filling inside the tiny spheres can be molten hot. All the more umami, though, when you sprinkle on some bonus bonito flakes.
Nothing, of course, is likely to beat the experience of snaffling your takoyakis in Osaka’s neon-lit Dotonburi district after a few Asahis, but to recreate the dish itself at home you can buy a pan from Amazon or improvise with an Ebelskiver Danish pancake pan. You can also purchase online a squeeze bottle of ready-made takoyaki sauce, complete with a cute octopus label.
I’ll use octopus next time but I concur with seasoned Japanese culinary explorer Michael Booth it doesn’t have to be the de rigueur filling. Prawn or squid are obvious replacements. In Booth’s The Meaning of Rice and other tales from the belly of Japan (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) he sacrilegiously suggests pork belly slowly simmered in sake or mirin, lighty pickled mackerel or even a chocolate version. The world is your Takoyaki.
How an English family’s foodie travelogue became a Japanese animation hit…
Michael Booth’s first travel book, 2007’s bestselling Sushi and Beyond (Vintage £8.99) was sparked by picking up a book on Japanese food, falling in love with with it and on the spur of the moment whisking his wife and two sons off on a trip to that country. In 2015 it inspired an animation series over there. Hardly Simpsons with Sushi, it is a quirky primer for a fascinating food culture. Here’s a taster.
In Episode 18, The World’s Fastest Fast Food: Michael and his family go to Osaka, which with its gaudy neon lights and people always on the go, presents an energetic vibe altogether different from Kyoto. While Lissen is left to buy some souvenirs, Michael and his two boys go in search of places serving the local specialties: Okonomi-yaki (savory pancakes) and Tako-yaki (octopus balls). They can’t decide which of them to eat. A strange old lady appears and more or less drags them to her establishment, which offers both dishes. What happens next? Spoiler alert above.