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What is Takoyaki?: A Guide to Japanese Octopus Dumplings

When it comes to Japanese street food, there can be no real conversation without mentioning takoyaki. If you’re not familiar with takoyaki, but you want to know “What is takoyaki?”, then you’re in the right place. 

This article will not only answer the question of “What is takoyaki?”, but also where it came from, how it tastes, the variations, and how it is made. 

Let’s start with what it is and what it’s made of.

What is Takoyaki?

Takoyaki making with toothpick and grill pan by street vendor
By Goffi/Shutterstock.com

Takoyaki, or たこ焼き, translates to octopus dumplings in English. Some English speakers also call it octopus balls. ‘Tako’ means octopus in Japanese while the ‘yaki’ refers to the style of cooking in which takoyaki is made. It refers to pan-frying or grilling food, and may also be observed at the end of other popular Japanese foods such as ikayaki and okonomiyaki.

What is it made of?

Takoyai in pan octopus egg whisk
Left : By PDA studio/Shutterstock.com Right: By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com

As the name suggests, one of the main ingredients of takoyaki is octopus. The dumpling or ball is made of eggs and wheat flour, which is then stuffed with diced octopus, pickled ginger, green onion and leftover fried tempura, before being pan-fried or grilled. (Tempura is another fried Japanese seafood dish that contains various vegetables such as okra, broccoli, and seaweed along with seafood such as shrimp, squid, and catfish.)

The exterior of the octopus ball is brushed with sauce and mayonnaise, before being garnished and served. Each takoyaki is roughly the size of a golf ball, and it may be even bigger depending on where it is purchased. 

If you are a big fan of seafood, then this octopus ball is as good as it gets! 

What is it served with

lady showing takoyaki in street in osaka
By PR Image Factory/Shutterstock.com

Wondering what takoyaki is served with? Well, it depends on when and where it is made. Takoyaki is a savory snack sold on the streets in yatais (street stands) in sets of six or eight and is served with a cold beer and just a pinch of salt to highlight the vibrant flavors. It is something many people have on the go, but you may also see them in restaurants where they are usually larger and have whole, small octopus (idaka) in each ball. 

It is traditionally served with takoyaki sauce, made of Worcestershire sauce, mentsuyu, tomato sauce (or ketchup), and sugar, to produce a sweet, umami flavor. They are also sold at convenience stores and supermarkets, and you can even purchase ready-to-mix batters to take out some of the guesswork.

What does it taste like?

Lady eating takoyaki in a street in Osaka
By PR Image Factory/Shutterstock.com

Let’s start with the exterior of the takoyaki. Usually, the fried dough is soft and chewy, but some people fry them a little longer so it gets crispier.  Try it both ways to find out which you prefer. It is quite a moist dough. If you’re not familiar with how octopus tastes, you should know that it doesn’t taste like chicken or fish. It has a chewy texture, but not to the point that it feels weird in your mouth. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but when combined with the other ingredients, the sweet, salty, and savory flavors dance on your tongue as they melt in your mouth.

A Brief History of Takoyaki

street vendor selling takoyaki several portions of takoyaki ready to sell
By Bogoshipda/Shutterstock.com

The invention of this popular street food is credited to a street vendor working back in 1935 named Tomekichi Endo . He was responsible for popularizing this dish in Osaka, but he was actually inspired by another famous street food from the city of Akahi made of batter and octopus. 

Endo gave it his own twist and in time takoyaki yatais popped up in the Kansai and Kantō regions before spreading to the rest of Japan. Endo is also responsible for founding the oldest takoyaki restaurant in Osaka in the 1930s called Aizyua. It originally served takoyaki called ‘choboyaki’ with a beef and konjac filling and had a flat shape, which later evolved into rajioyaki which had a round shape. The beef fillings were then replaced with octopus, giving us the takoyaki enjoyed in Japan today. 

Poke octopus ball with toothpick to eat
By HikoPhotography/Shutterstock.com

Takoyaki is popular at Japanese festivals and celebrations, especially in the summertime. Usually, they are served with toothpicks that make them much easier to eat than with chopsticks, especially if you’re too greedy to wait for them to properly cool.

Variations of Takoyaki

Takoyaki fillings Variations
Top: By PAPA WOR / Poring Studio / George Dolgikh / istetiana / Shutterstock.com
Bottom: By yoshi0511 / Irina Rostokina / Paulo Vilela / Dream79 / Shutterstock.com

There are many variations of takoyaki besides the classic Osaka version. In Tokyo, cabbage is used and is considered another rendition of takoyaki. 

If you’re not a fan of octopus, there are other fillings you may use to enjoy this yummy treat. These include:

  • Sausage
  • Tofu
  • Prawns
  • Bacon
  • Ground beef
  • Ground pork
  • Chicken cubes
  • Taco meat
  • Kimchi 
  • Squid
  • Canned tuna
  • Shiso (Beefsteak plant)
  • Chocolate (It sounds a bit adventurous)
  • Mochi (Rice cake) 
  • Cheese only
  • Cheese and tomato

Alternatives to traditional takoyaki sauce include goma darre sauce (Japanese sesame sauce), ponzu sauce , melted cheese sauce, and okonomiyaki sauce. Others just sprinkle their takoyaki with salt. 

Takoyaki Parties

Tako pa takoyaki party at home drawing
By Kobly/Shutterstock.com

If you know the Japanese, you know they love throwing a good takoyaki party at home. What is it all about? Firstly, the Japanese call it a tako-pa! It’s a time where people come together and make their own renditions of takoyaki, have a few drinks, and catch up with each other. 

When going to a tako-pa, you should probably bring your own takoyaki pan since there may be multiple people making takoyaki. Some people even turn it into a sort of Russian roulette game since you won’t know what it’s filled with until you bite into it. It can be as yummy as chicken, or so spicy it will burn your tongue! It’s the ultimate greasy snack to have for a night of drinking. 

How to make a tako-pa at home

Thinking of having your own takoyaki party at home? No matter where you are in the world, you can celebrate as the Japanese do.

Now, let’s explore what takoyaki party essentials are.

The ingredients for the batter include

  • 2 cups of dashi (gives the batter its flavor)
  • 2 large eggs (to help make it crispy)
  • 1sp soy sauce (to enhance the flavor)
  • ½ tsp salt (to enhance the flavor)
  • 1 cup self-raising flour (holds everything together)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • Corn-starch (optional, for extra crunch)

The filling requires:

  • 5-6 oz cooked octopus, cubed (the star of the dish)
  • 2 spring onions, diced (for freshness and color)
  • 1tbsp pickled ginger (for spice and a pop of color)
  • Leftover tempura (adds texture and umami flavor)

For sauce and toppings (to liking):

  • Takoyaki sauce (adds sweet flavor)
  • Japanese mayonnaise (condiment)
  • Katsuobushi (bonito (fish) flakes)
  • Aonori (dried seaweed flakes)
ingredients to make takoyaki
By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com

Utensils and other necessities:

  • Cooking oil (neutral-flavored)
  • Takoyaki pan or plate (specially made cast-iron pot or hot plate with spherical molds 
  • Takoyaki pick
  • Large bowl (for batter)
  • Small bowl (for eggs)
  • Small bowl (for filling)
  • Whisk
  • Ladle (or spouted container for pouring batter)
  • Basting brush

Steps to make takoyaki:

  • Combine the flour, baking powder, corn-starch and salt in the large bowl. 
  • Whisk the eggs with the soy sauce in the small bowl, then add it to the dry mixture.
  • Slowly pour dashi into the batter, and whisk until it has a thin, runny consistency. Make sure there are no lumps of flour floating in the mixture.
  • Combine the diced octopus with most of the spring onions, pickled ginger and tempura that you have in a small bowl 
  • Heat the takoyaki pan a little over medium heat then brush it with the oil. Be generous with the oil since this will help to make turning them easier and will prevent sticking. Each mold should have at least ¼ inch of oil inside when finished. 
  • Once the oil begins to smoke, pour the batter into the molds about ¾ full.
cooking takoyai at home pour the batter into the molds of pan
By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com
  • Add the filling. It may begin to overflow, but don’t be alarmed. Scatter the extra spring onions, pickled ginger and tempura across the top layer. 
cooking takoyaki at home Add the filling on top of batter
By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com

You will notice your batter turning golden around the edges after about 3 minutes. Use the takoyaki pick to rotate your takoyaki balls to a 90° angle. Fill in any spaces you see with extra batter.

cooking takoyai at home rotate your takoyaki balls
By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com
  • When the sides become golden once more, rotate your ball and add excess batter to any spaces. In time, the entire ball will become crispy and will be easier to cook. Rotating them prevents burning and ensures all the balls are cooked evenly. 
Cooking takoyaki turn the balls with toothpicks
By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com
  • Once cooked, remove your balls using the toothpick and brush them with the takoyaki sauce. Add the mayo and garnish to your liking. 
Cooking takoyaki at home take cooked takoyai out of pan
By Atsushi Hirao/Shutterstock.com

Enjoy!

Store any leftover takoyaki balls in a sealed container in the fridge for up to three days.

Conclusion

The next time someone asks you what is takoyaki, you’ll have a great answer for them. For now, practice your recipes to see which combination you like best!

Don’t be scared to experiment with different flavors until you find your perfect combination. While takoyaki may be a traditional street food, you’re supposed to have fun with it!

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