If you follow your nose, one of the snacks easily found on the streets of Japan is taiyaki (which translates to baked or grilled red sea bream). It’s often prepared in front of customers who can see the pancake or waffle-like batter and the filling – most often anko, a sweet adzuki bean paste – being poured into a fish-shaped mould and cooked.
Taiyaki is a descendant of imagawayaki, a springy pancake with fillings like anko and custard, which was first sold in Tokyo at the end of the 18th century. Some confectionery shops eventually started to shape the cakes like a red sea bream (tai, in Japanese), a symbol of luck.
Taiyaki is especially delicious when eaten straight from the grill on a cold winter day. Japanese people of all ages love them, but none more than children. “Kids with just a tiny bit of money from their parents, like a dollar, when they hang out with friends and get hungry, they can just go get one taiyaki,” says Matsuda.
A song dedicated to the snack, 'Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun' came out in 1975 and became the bestselling single of all time in Japan. The song by Masato Shimon, which appeared on a children's TV show, tells the story of a taiyaki that escapes the hot plate to return to the sea.
Taiyaki in Australia
At Papirica, Matsuda only makes between six and 20 taiyaki per day. “I’m an old-school type of person, I prefer to do things slowly and properly,” he explains.
By replacing the egg with tofu, he made his batter vegan, but he keeps things traditional with an anko centre. The outside of the fish is soft, with crispy bits around the edges.
“I like the crispy bits. Sometimes, people get rid of them, but I like the food being rustic,” he says.
Also in Melbourne, in the suburb of Clayton, Japanese café Chayō has started serving taiyaki as a special in early 2021. “We had the taiyaki machine sitting around,” explains Eric Chan, who co-owns the cafe with Sayaka Matsuki. “It’s something I missed about Japan, walking past a taiyaki shop and going inside because of the smell.”
In Perth, Batter Up Taiyaki is a market stall dedicated solely to this snack. Wife-and-husband duo Sarah Valencia and Dan Madureira launched their business in 2018 after falling in love with taiyaki in Japan. “The fish shape drew us to it. We were at a temple, in Kyoto, I think, with market stalls outside, and one of the stalls was taiyaki. The atmosphere, it was a bit cold, they had these nice warm pancakes made in front of you, with custard in them, what more could you want?” says Valencia.
“It’s something I missed about Japan, walking past a taiyaki shop and going inside because of the smell.”
The couple filled their suitcases with moulds, which allow them to make 18 taiyaki at a time. “It takes about 12 minutes or so to make them so when we’re busy, it’s hard to keep up because you can’t rush it, it has to be made low and slow,” says Valencia.
Vanilla custard is their bestseller, followed by matcha custard and adzuki beans. They also have specials like yuzu, black sesame, pandan, and cheesy corn.
What makes a good taiyaki?
According to Matsuda, the perfect taiyaki doesn’t exist – it’s really about personal taste. Some prefer the batter to be cooked until it’s crunchy, while others prefer it softer.
“I like my taiyaki to be moist and soft outside with lots of filling inside,” he explains. “People often can get quite disappointed when there’s no filling in the tail. I always make sure to have filling in the tail.”
For Valencia, it’s all about balance: “The correct ratio of pancake to filling, the right amount of crisp edges to fluffy pancake and the sweetness not being over the top – everything needs to work in harmony together.”
Matsuda finds it interesting to witness all the new fillings that have appeared since he was a child. But one thing he’s not on board with is an overly fussy and fancy taiyaki.
“Some places do very fancy taiyaki with decorations and fancy ice cream and they charge $20… It’s BS!" he exclaims, laughing. "Taiyaki is just a snack, it needs to be reasonable – it’s not a luxury thing.”
Dashimaki tamago is the Japanese version of an omelette, with delicate, thin layers of egg folded over each other to form a roll.