Japan has plenty of delicious street foods that will call out to you as you walk through some of the popular and busy areas. The massive displays of Japanese crepes call customers over for a sweet treat. Kakigori beckons people to cool off during the hot Japanese summers. Taiyaki begs you to enjoy a tasty snack with its delicious-looking fish shape.
That’s right. The fish-shaped pastries you see on the streets of Japan are a tasty treat that people all over the world are coming to love. Let’s dive into this tasty Japanese treat.
What is Taiyaki?
This Japanese treat can come in different shapes, sizes and designs based on the shop. Image via Instagram (@iwate_kuishinbo)
Taiyaki is a Japanese street food that stands out for its unique fish shape and design. Despite its shape, this treat is usually sweet and usually fish-free. Made with mochi flour, these pan-cooked fish cakes are nice and crispy on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside. Add the delicious, warm filling, and you have a beloved snack.
It’s hard to describe the exact flavor of a taiyaki because the filling you choose can influence the taste, although anko (red bean paste) is the traditional filling. However, the bread shell is often compared to a waffle or pancake. Specifically, the outer shell is crispy like a waffle and the inside is fluffy like a cake or pancake.
Usually sold for anywhere between 300-700 yen, taiyaki is usually available at small specialty shops, festival food stalls, and the occasional traveling food stall. These shops will always have a double-sided taiyaki mold where batter is placed. Once the batter cooks to a certain point, the cook adds the filling and closes the mold, so each half cooks into one. This treat is usually ordered warm and fresh right off the grill.
The name and the fish shape go hand-in-hand. Taiyaki is a combo of two words. If you’ve red our blogs about takoyaki or yakitori, you’ll know that ‘yaki’ refers to baking or grilling something. But what about tai? Tai refers to red sea bream, the fish that this dish is modeled after.
Where did it come from?
Imagawayaki is also traditionally filled with anko, but shops that serve these treats also have unique flavors like purple potato. Image via Instagram (@small.cafe.journey)
While taiyaki is gaining popularity around the world, it’s actually just another Japanese treat with a different shape. That dish is imagawayaki, a treat of waffle-like batter cooked with a red bean paste filling. This treat was first sold sometime between 1772 and 1781 (during the An’ei era of the Edo Period).
The creator of taiyaki, Seijiro Kobe, ran his own imagawayaki shop. Unfortunately, he was having trouble selling them and decided to make them in the shape of a fish, selling the first one in 1909. What fish did he choose? Well, red sea bream, of course!
Why Sea Bream?
Sea bream has a bit of significance in Japanese food culture. Culturally, this fish is known as a symbol of luck, prosperity and good fortune, with its red color making it particularly auspicious. Even the name ‘tai’ brings luck with its tie to the word medetai, meaning happy or auspicious.
In fact, many people say that this fish wards off evil spirits! That’s why they’re eaten on special occasions like Japanese New Year, weddings and more. Plus, back in the day, it was pretty expensive and luxurious.
All of this made it the perfect fish to model this new dish after. Not only did Seijiro Kobe capture the celebration side of sea bream, he also caught the luxury feel of this fish when he made taiyaki.
This feeling persists at Seijiro’s shop, Naniwaya, to this day. Naniwaya is actually one of those shops that makes their taiyaki one at a time as opposed to using a larger griddle. This allows for a carefully, perfectly cooked treat that also feels unique to each customer.
There's nothing wrong with ones cooked on large griddles, but snack enthusiasts say the individually cooked ones at Naniwaya just "hit different." Image via Instagram (@uranaielena)
What Your Taiyaki Habits Say About You
Part of taiyaki’s popularity comes from the debate adults have of whether to eat it from the head or tail. People even say that how you eat your taiyaki says a lot about what kind of person you are. Generally, Japanese people go for either the head or tail, but some people eat from the fish’s back or stomach or split it in half first.
Let’s go through each method briefly and see if your taiyaki consumption method matches your personality.
You’re optimistic but a little rough in how you perform tasks. You give it your all but tend not to look at the fine details.
You’re careful and maybe a bit of a worrier. You think things through and do them carefully. You also might like things that are romantic and beautiful but might also be very pure and easily hurt.
You might be the type who is nervous and easily lonely. You can also be a bit childlike. You may be quite the mood-maker in terms of romance but can also cry easily. No shame in that though.
You are a positive, popular person who is also very curious. You are probably more assertive and tend to stand out, but you might also be gullible because of your honest and caring nature.
Some shops, like the Sega taiyaki shop, have special character versions of this treat. Not sure how to eat this Zenitsu one though.
Break and Eat from the Head
You are an action-oriented and inquisitive person who barrels forward when you have a goal. Unlike the stomach-first types, you don’t like to attract too much attention but still want recognition. You’re super dependable but may be a little annoying.
Break and Eat from the Tail
You are very smart and hard-working (like an honor student) but may be a bit conservative. You’re very well-mannered and serious as well but may seem unapproachable to others. You’re also good at sticking with things.
Fun Fact: Kanbe, The Kanbe-Certified Method
Kanbe Masamori is the current head of Naniwaya and is the fourth generation of the family to run the shop. According to Nippon.com, Kanbe’s favorite way to eat taiyaki is actually to split it in half. The reason is that the filling of fresh taiyaki is usually piping hot and the heat can make anko taste overly sweet.
To balance out the flavor, Kanbe recommends breaking it in half and letting the filling cool for a minute or two.
Breaking it open also lets you enjoy the visuals of the filling too, like this matcha red bean paste and mochi filling. Image via Instagram (@matcha_aiai)
While anko is the traditional filling, shop owners have experimented with other ingredients and added plenty of tasty fillings that have become standard. Let’s explore a few of them!
Anko (& Koshian)
Anko is a red bean paste that comes from adzuki beans. Anko is always thick and has a unique sweetness to it. It is mostly smooth with tiny bits of bean in it. However, if it is completely smooth, it can also be called koshian.
Vanilla custard adds a silky smooth sweetness to taiyaki as well as a bit of vanilla flavoring that pairs well with the outer shell.
Matcha, or powdered Japanese green tea, is a well-loved flavor in Japan for its unique bitterness that pairs well with sweet treats. Matcha taiyaki can take two forms. One is a classic outer shell with fillings like matcha-anko, matcha cream or both. The other version will have a matcha-flavored outer shell and a variety of fillings.
Based on the shop, the dough creates a crispy skirt where it has cooked after the two halves were put together in the griddle. Image via Instagram (@matcha_takanasan)
Like the matcha flavoring, chocolate taiyaki can manifest as a chocolate outer shell or as a chocolate cream or chocolate flake filling.
Japanese sweet potatoes are a delicious treat that are perfect for fall and winter. It also makes a great filling for these fish-shaped cakes.
Taiyaki ice cream was all over social media for a while because it looks amazing on Instagram with the open-mouthed fish being full of tasty soft serve. However, this cold dessert is actually a Japanese-American creation.
This taiyaki-inspired treat is always such a vibe and plenty of Japanese tourists to America love to try this unique treat. Image via Unsplash
Japan’s chestnut season is short, only lasting from late August to late October, but it sees tons of seasonal chestnut treats. That includes this street food treat that adds a subtle sweetness that goes great with the breading.
Okay. This flavor is really just apple, but that warm, tasty apple gives this treat an apple pie feel.
Cream cheese gives taiyaki a deliciously creamy, slightly sweet, and warm addition to the classic.
Taiyaki like this are great because it combines sweet breading and savory fillings for a perfect balance. Image via Instagram (@livingtochigi)
While taiyaki is known as a sweet treat, savory fillings are available for those who might be lacking a sweet tooth. Some popular savory fillings include cheese, pizza, gyoza, sausage, curry, okonomiyaki, and tuna.
Taiyaki is one of our favorite Japanese street food sweets that always satisfies our sweet tooth. There are plenty of shops, including Naniwaya, that sell this treat, so definitely try it when you get the chance in Japan. Have you ever tried taiyaki? What are your favorite fillings? Would you try a sweet or savory taiyaki? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!