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Takoyaki Pan-demonium!

June 4, 2018

Many of our readers will already be familiar with takoyaki, the beloved Japanese street food, but for the uninitiated, imagine this: chunks of octopus, benishoga (pickled ginger), green onion and tempura bits encased in balls of batter, cooked in a special pan until golden brown, slathered in sweet sauce and mayonnaise, then dusted with dried katsuobushi (skipjack shavings) and powdered seaweed (aonori flakes), and served piping hot.

Hailing originally from the lively streets of Osaka, this cheap and cheerful snack has become a staple of festivals and roadside kiosks throughout Japan. Its invention is widely credited to Endo Tomekichi, a cook who had been experimenting with variations on the already popular akashiyaki, an eggier precursor to takoyaki that was served with a dipping broth. Tomekichi began selling the new iteration in 1935, and the ensuing years saw takoyaki’s success spread throughout the archipelago.

These days, takoyaki is virtually everywhere, and it’s actually quite common for households, especially in the Kansai region, to have their own takoyaki pan. The spread of these special utensils in the home has given rise to the beloved “takoyaki party.” Wouldn’t you like to try it, too?
“But, can I make takoyaki without the pan?” you may be thinking.
Technically, yes. In fact, this site even has a recipe you can prepare without one. But, really, the pan, with its instantly recognizable hemispheric indentations, is basically essential for an authentic takoyaki experience. And, once you have one, you’ll realize there’s a lot more you can do with it (more on that in a moment!).
Luckily, in this day and age of online retail, you shouldn’t have much trouble hunting one down, even outside of Japan. Whether you opt for a simple stovetop pan, or decide on an electric or gas-powered model, takoyaki makers are easy to find and relatively inexpensive. Electric units are especially popular here in Japan – besides being easy to use, they allow you to cook your takoyaki right on the dining table for a fun, communal experience.
“But, is that all? Can I use the takoyaki pan for anything else?”
That is what we decided to find out. Armed with our trusty electric pan, and a few recipes from this site, we set out to discover just what can be done with this wonderful device.

“Trad” Takoyaki

Starting things off with the orthodox approach, and this traditional recipe, we began by filling our lightly-oiled pan with batter. Next, we dropped in chunks of boiled octopus, sprinkled in some tempura bits, and topped-up the batter as needed. Finally, we added chopped green onions and benishoga. Now came the tricky part. Once the bottom of the takoyaki have cooked to a golden brown, you need to loosen them from the pan and turn them over using a wooden skewer. This is more of an art than a science, and may take a little while to master. Once we got our balls turned over and browning, we spun them around periodically for a nice, even crust. Ideally, takoyaki should be crispy on the outside, but moist and chewy on the inside. Once they were ready, we removed them from the pan, drizzled them with sauce and mayonnaise, topped the whole thing off with aonori flakes and skipjack shavings, and dug in. Be warned, though – freshly made takoyaki is usually extremely hot inside, so make sure you have a cold drink handy in case you miscalculate!

If you’re not a fan of tentacles, fear not – there is no law stating you must use octopus! Tuna, cheese, or wiener slices are common substitutes we’ve come across.
Now, for something completely different…

Ajillo

Given that Japanese and Spanish diners share an affinity for various small dishes nibbled communally amongst friends or family, using the takoyaki pan to prepare a zesty ajillo didn’t seem like much of a stretch. It was also ridiculously easy! Ajillo basically consists of olive oil, flavored with slices of garlic and chili pepper. It’s important to heat the oil with the garlic and pepper, so that it absorbs the flavor of these seasonings. Once hot, you can add shrimp, mushroom, or just about anything else that strikes your fancy. We prepared this tapas dish in mere moments, based on this recipe from our Japanese Food site, scaling the ingredients down to fit in the individual compartments of the takoyaki pan, and adding some chunks of asparagus we happened to have on hand. You may also want to try mini tomatoes, ham, or sausage as well, but however you choose to customize your ajillo, it is essential to have plenty of chunks of fresh baguette handy to eat with the mixture, and soak up that delicious oil. Speaking of which, we saved the leftover seasoned olive oil to drizzle over pasta the next day, a move I cannot recommend strongly enough.

Mini Burgers

Why not use your takoyaki pan to make adorable, bite-sized burgers for your next party?
While purists may groan at yet another crass Western encroachment, rest assured that Japanese food culture has already easily absorbed the hamburger and adapted it to local tastes. Indeed, this ability to incorporate outside influences, while retaining its distinct identity, is part of what makes Japanese food culture so robust. Even our own Japanese Food site has a burger recipe, which we used here to make the meat patties. Feel free to use ours, or your own favorite variation, but just don’t forget to make the patties smaller! A diameter of 3-4cm should be just right.

To make our mini burger buns, we used pancake batter for a consistent, fluffy texture. Once we mixed up the batter, we heated the takoyaki pan (low-medium). Next, we lightly oiled the pan and filled up half of the compartments roughly 1/2 full of pancake mix. When the batter had risen, and bubbles began to pop on top, we filled the other half of the compartments again roughly 1/2 full of batter. Once this second batch rose, we carefully removed the first batch of mini-buns, using a skewer, and placed them cooked-side-up on top of the second batch. When the bottoms had cooked to a golden brown, we rotated each mini-bun to cook the sides, then removed and set them aside to cool.

Next, we fried up the patties, and it was time to assemble the mini burgers! The buns are easy to split along the seam, and can be garnished with cheese, mini tomato slices, and whatever else you like. Skewering them with decorative toothpicks not only keeps them together, they lend an ultra-cute flourish that will have even the cynics cooing with delight.

Of course this was just a tiny hint of the possibilities the takoyaki pan has to offer. We can’t wait to try another round of experiments, and I’m sure it won’t be long before another batch of “regular” takoyaki is cooking away at the table, either.
Why don’t you join us?

Text and photos: Marcus Hutchings