The Sweet Sea-Bream Shaped Dessert, Taiyaki

Sweets and pastries come in all shapes and sizes, and different flavors in this world. Each country has a wide selection of desserts to try out, and while many of them are similar in some ways compared to their neighboring nations, they are also different in many aspects.

The sweets native to a nation are usually made from whatever food product is common in their country. In the U.S.A., for instance, a lot of wheat and corn fields yield a lot of raw material, so you’ll see many desserts using flour and high fructose corn syrup. Doughnuts and corn flakes are direct examples of popular pastries in the U.S. that are popular due to the availability of their source ingredients.

On the other hand, Japan is a country that does not fall short in their list of sweets and desserts. Japanese are fond of using both rice and wheat in their desserts, flavoring it with what is abundant in terms of their agriculture, such as beans, green tea, sweet potato, and melons. One dessert that stands out is the taiyaki.

So, What Exactly Is Taiyaki?

Usually sold on the streets or in festivals, taiyaki is a Japanese dessert whose outer layer is made from a pancake/waffle batter, and whose inner layer is (usually) made from sweetened azuki beans, mashed into a red bean paste. What’s interesting about the taiyaki, most of all is its shape. It pops out compared to the rest of the desserts because it’s molded to look like a fish, with all the details (fins, scales, eyes, tail) meticulously engraved on the pastry.

Taiyaki usually is best served crispy and golden-brown. Though the most common version of taiyaki is filled with that red bean paste, fillings of Taiyaki don’t always have to be made from that particular mixture; it can be made from other ingredients and flavors.

The Meaning Behind the Word “Taiyaki”

“Taiyaki”, when translated from Japanese to English, means “baked/grilled sea bream”. When you break down the words, “tai” stands for sea bream, and “yaki” means grilled/baked.

When you look closer, there is more etymology in play here, because “sea bream” in Japanese is “tai-madai”, which is very close to the word “medatai” which is the Japanese definition of prosperous and/or happy. Because they sound so alike, the Japanese consider the dish as a metaphor of good luck and eat it to acquire such luck.

The History of Taiyaki

Before Taiyaki, there was “imagawayaki”. Imagawayaki – also known as “oobanyaki” in Kansai - is a snack that dates as far back as the Edo period. They would serve this in Tokyo’s Kanda district, particularly at the Kanda Imagawabashi Bridge. It is round, and its soft exterior is made of a slightly thicker batter and is also filled with mashed red bean paste. Imagawayaki is cooked in small pans that are pre-made just to fit their small sizes.

Taiyaki is almost the same as imagawayaki, but the differences are taiyaki’s shape (taiyaki always comes in the likeness of a fish) and its more prominent crispiness. It began being sold during the Meiji period, but its true origins have been undocumented and unverified; such as which pastry shop started this trend, or why the form of a sea bream is chosen to represent the sweet dessert. Some say that vendors purposely shaped it to look like sea bream to give the consumer a sense of luxury, as sea bream was considered a very expensive delicacy at that time.

A store in Tokyo, in the Azabu-Juban region called “Naniyawa original store” claims that it was the first to ever come up with the idea as early as 1909. It would later develop more chains around Tokyo that would continue making taiyaki desserts. This would later be copied by other stores and vendors, muddling the source and authenticity of taiyaki.

The Song That Popularized Taiyaki

During the mid-70’s, emerged a classic Japanese children’s song called “Oyoge! Taiykai-kun” that made the dessert even more popular among kids (and adults alike). The song talks about a Taiyaki pastry that comes to life and gets away from its baker. It makes it to sea, and narrowly escapes being eaten by the different sea animals. It takes shelter in a shipwreck for a while, but in the end, it still gets caught and eaten by fishermen. It is said that this story is a metaphor for those who are deviant about the work cycle of life and want to break free from it, only to face a gloomy end.

Because the song was such a hit and is still considered one of Japan’s bestselling songs, everyone wanted to get in on the taiyaki craze. Pastry shops started selling them more, turning them into more convenient snacks with varying flavors. While the classic version of taiyaki is sold by vendors and bakers, you can purchase pre-made taiyaki, and simply heat it in the microwave to enjoy a fragment of the culmination of Japanese dessert history.

Different Taiyaki Flavors

People keep finding ways to reinvent taiyaki because it’s such a versatile dessert. Often served hot, sometimes served cold, this dish has been perfected and remixed countless times to suit almost everyone’s tastes and cravings. If you’re not a big fan of sweet, mushy beans, then you’re sure to find a flavor you like among the taiyaki variety.

Filling options include chocolate, sweet potato, custard, matcha (green tea), apple and cinnamon, sesame, cheese, and even cheesecake. Taiyaki isn’t stuck on the sweet train either. It has many savory options, some of which have bacon and potatoes, sausage, and curry, to name a few. Taiyaki is always open to being filled with trendy flavors, and the Japanese aren’t afraid to experiment. They honor it all; traditional, fusion, and experimental takes on this well-loved pastry.

The Crowd’s Favorite: Taiyaki Ice Cream

Continuing the theme of experimenting comes the filling option of ice cream. Gaining momentum in terms of reception because of its easy appeal to any dessert-loving audience, takiyaki ice cream is making waves worldwide. Why is it such a hit? Instead of enjoying your scoop of ice cream on a cone and hurrying to finish it before it lands on your palm, taiyaki ice cream conveniently wraps around that cold creaminess to assure minimum spillage.

Not only that, it also comes in the fun shape of a fish, which to some, is more aesthetically pleasing (and fun) to eat. It sparks the age-old question (even with the traditional version), “where do you start eating your taiyaki first?” Some prefer to start at the face of the fish, others at the tail. With normal ice cream, you really don’t have much of a choice.

Taiyaki ice cream can come in two ways. If you buy it ready-made, it comes conveniently sealed in a wrapper, which you carefully peel open. You then consume the taiyaki with your bare hands, biting through the wafer and layers of ice cream and chocolate. The other kind of taiyaki ice cream comes with the ice cream that looks like it’s overflowing from the mouth of the fish. The batter is formed into a fish-shaped cone which holds the scoops (or soft serve dollop) of ice cream with its toppings.

Other Kinds of Taiyaki

Taiyaki’s variety doesn’t end with ice cream. There are also kinds that have crusts made from tapioca flour, and gives a heavier, chewier, denser (and gluten free) experience to eating taiyaki. That version is called “white taiyaki”. Mini taiyaki are just bite-sized taiyaki. Then there’s square taiyaki, where the batter is added to the four corners of the pan to give the dessert four corners, as opposed to just being a plain fish. Don’t forget croissant taiyaki, which became a big hit in Tokyo after the “cronut” (croissant and donut) craze.

People have gotten creative with the shapes too. Some taiyaki (though its name originates from sea bream, so it’s contradictory) are made from other fish shapes, such as Carb Streamers or Koi-nobori. These are usually made in the Saitama prefecture, mimicking the famous festival adornment. In the Nagasaki prefecture, they make whale versions out of their taiyaki. Other countries, one of them being Korea, have also picked up the taiyaki dessert, which they call “Bungeoppang”.

With taiyaki being so famous in Japan, many stores have their own take on this sweet pastry. One of the best stores you can visit is Taiyaki Wakaba, which is found on a side street near Yotsuya station. Founded way back in 1895, this restaurant has perfected its taiyaki craft. The batter that Taiyaki Wakaba uses has a distinct saltiness to it that perfectly matches with the sweetness of the red bean paste. They aren’t stingy with the filling too; they make sure that it’s spread all the way from the head to the tip.

As for a great place to satisfy your non-traditional taiyaki craving, there’s Hiiragi, found in Ebisu, Shibuya, which adds a serving of soft serve to a cup before adding the taiyaki on top. The cool touch the ice cream provides gives a great reason to order this during the summer. For a more diverse set of taiyaki flavors, head over to Ajisaki. This store gives you more options when it comes to its batter and filling, such as matcha dough, and matcha custard cream. Ajisaki gets very creative with its flavors, and many of them are seasonal. Ajisaki is found on the ground floor of Seibu Ikebukuro Department Store.

Buy A Special Pan to Make Taiyaki Waffles

Want to make your own taiyaki so you can perfect the recipe to meet your standards? Or just so you get to have it every day without paying so much for it? Well, one of the most important items you’re going to need is the special pan that forms the engravings of the fish on the dough.

How it works is simple. After making the dough and filling by following a recipe, simply pour it into this special pan, add the filling, and then add another layer of dough. Lower the half of the pan to cook the upper layer of the taiyaki. Once it’s done, it should have those extra indentations that mark the details of the fish. It’s usually served hot, but depending on your flavor or filling, you may opt to serve it cold as well.

Here’s A Tasty Recipe To Help You Make Taiyaki At Home

For your ingredients, these are the dry ingredients you’ll need. Gather need cake flour (150 grams, or 1 and ¼ cup), a teaspoon of baking soda, a teaspoon of baking powder, and 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar. For wet ingredients, prepare a single, beaten egg, milk (200 ml, or ¾ cup), 100 grams (or 5 tablespoons) of anko, which is the red bean paste, and a tablespoon of canola oil.

After preparing the measurements, the first step entails taking on the dry ingredients. Begin with the cake flour; sift this into a bowl to remove unwanted sediments. Whisk in the granulated sugar. Take a separate bowl and add the beaten egg, and then the milk. Mix this well. Once it’s well incorporated, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and whisk. To give the batter some firmness and a smooth finish when it’s cooked, leave the bowl in the refrigerator to cool for about an hour.

Once it’s chilled, take out your taiyaki pan, and brush the oil on the fish patterns with some canola oil. Turn the heat to low, and add the taiyaki batter only about 60% of the way. Take your anko, and add it on top of the batter in the amount you prefer – around a tablespoon should be good enough. Finally, pour batter on top, and close the lid. Flip the pan, so that the taiyaki is evenly cooked, which should last for about 2 minutes and a half for each face of the fish. You’ll know it’s good once the batter turns golden brown.

Be Adventurous, Try All The Desserts

Food tells a story, no matter if it’s sweet or savory. It represents the country it was created in, and there’s no harm in experiencing the food of other cultures. Taiyaki is easy to love and makes for a great snack or dessert. Try to make some for yourself, and experiment with the different flavors you can fill it with. Don’t forget to take a photo, and share it with your friends.