One question which I get asked a lot here is “what’s your favorite Japanese food?”
Now, taking into consideration all the great gastronomical treats Japan has to offer, it’s no surprise that for some, picking a single favorite dish might be a little difficult. For me however, there’s no doubt that the honor should go to a little wonder called “takoyaki.” It’s a simple snack which I love almost as much as life itself, and in this blog entry, I’m happy to report that I’ve recently had the chance to actually try my hand at cooking it.
Homemade takoyaki: the finished product!
As my host grandmother is the one in charge of all the meals at home, she’s taken it upon herself to know everyone’s favorite foods. When I told her that my first and only gastronomical love was takoyaki – a popular Japanese snack made by cooking chopped octopus in spheres of gooey batter – she made sure to schedule a trip to the home of my host mother’s younger sister (technically my host aunt), who owns a takoyaki pan; I remember it was on the last Monday of October that we finally made this trip.
We arrived at my host aunt’s home in Odaiba just a few minutes shy of 4:30PM – a rather unusual time for a meal, but as good a time as any for takoyaki. All the ingredients and equipment we were going to need had already been laid out on the dining table: a large bowl of flour batter, chopped octopus, pickled ginger, bonito flakes, several condiment bottles, and a takoyaki pan. Needless to say, I was quite excited.
Where gastronomical wonders are born
Before we began, my host aunt gave me a much-needed rundown on how we were going to proceed with cooking: heat and oil the pan, pour the batter, insert octopus, then garnish with condiments. As a single takoyaki takes the form of a sphere, I knew that the tough part was going to be flipping each batter ball over in the pan’s semi-spherical molds, using nothing but toothpicks – and I was right. Barely two minutes into that stage, my grandmother had to ask me to stop prodding at the batter balls, because she couldn’t cook and laugh at me struggling at the same time. And if I’m being completely honest, it really was a laughably pathetic struggle – who knew moist batter could be so slippery? So I threw in the towel after the “insert octopus” stage, and just watched my aunt and grandma flip takoyaki spheres like professionals.
Trust me, it's harder than it looks!
Simply eating takoyaki is already a great experience on its own, but actually partaking in the cooking process brought me to a whole new level of appreciation for this Japanese snack. It wasn’t just due to the fact that homemade food is inherently better than store-bought food; I was consuming the result of my (host aunt and grandma’s) hard work, which tasted awesome.
In addition, cooking is an experience that really succeeds in bringing people together, even when language and cultural barriers are in the way. As my Japanese is still at the intermediate level, I am only able to communicate complex thoughts after expending a considerable amount of effort. Whilst cooking however, I was able to simply enjoy myself and everyone else’s company. It turned out to be a great bonding opportunity, and if I wasn’t sure before, I am now: choosing to do a homestay was the right way to go with this study abroad adventure to Japan.
All things considered, I think it was a really successful day. The only downside I can think of is the fact that store-bought takoyaki will now never taste as great to me – but even then, it’s still possible for one to make each store-bought takoyaki experience a unique one. For example: I know for a fact that different takoyaki stands in Japan offer their own unique selection of sauces to spice things up, whilst others offer fillings that aren’t octopus (like chocolate). However, both of these things are blog entries for another time.
I wasn't lying about the chocolate!