Takoyaki: The History of Japan’s Popular Street Food

Takoyaki: The History of Japan’s Popular Street Food

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Takoyaki
Picture: tokomaru7 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
It's now so popular you'd think it was ancient - but in truth, takoyaki isn't even a century old. Learn more about the popular street food.

Visit any street festival in Japan, and you’ll inevitably encounter the tasty snack takoyaki (たこ焼き). Cooked into little balls on a grill with rows of hemispherical molds, these crispy octopus dumplings often covered in garnishes and savory sauces are Osaka Prefecture’s pride and joy but have captured hearts all over Japan.

Takoyaki is so embedded in Japanese street food cuisine that it surprises many to learn it’s a fairly recent addition to the national palate. And by recent, we mean the bright glitzy days of the Showa era (1926-1989).

The origins of takoyaki

The man widely believed to be the creator of takoyaki is Endo Tomekichi (1907-1997), the founder of Aizuya in Osaka. In the early 1930s, he was searching for a snack customers could enjoy either hot or cold with a beer. In 1933 he created rajioyaki using beef, konjac, and tenkasu (leftover fried tempura scraps).

Rajioyaki in turn was a derivation of the popular children’s snack choboyaki, dumplings filled with konjac, red pickled ginger, snow peas, and shoyu. Why he named his creation after the newly introduced radio is unclear. But it certainly brought attention to his shop.

The original Aizuya in Osaka (Source: Wikipedia)

But customers weren’t sold on rajioyaki. The story goes that one day a customer mentioned to Tomekichi that the city Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture uses octopus instead of meat as filling in their circular snack tamagoyaki. (Not to be confused with the popular rolled omelet dish.)

Unlike rajioyaki, tamagoyaki has less edible roots. During the Tenpo era (1831-1845), one of Akashi’s main industries was akashidama, an imitation coral commonly used in ornamental hair accessories called kanzashi. Akashidama were made with egg whites and saltpeter, and the remaining egg yolks and flour from the production process went into making tamagoyaki. Tamagoyaki was smaller with a softer eggy texture compared to its larger, crispy descendent.

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Intrigued, Tomekichi started experimenting. He upgraded the batter, dissolving the flour in soy sauce and dashi instead of water for extra flavor. In 1935 he began selling takoyaki, which became an instant hit.

Takoyaki’s rise to fame

Takoyaki street vendors
Picture: kouta / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Takoyaki was mainly an Osaka exclusive for many years until post-World War II. Following the introduction of Worcestershire sauce by the Americans during the Occupation days, some shops began serving takoyaki covered in thick sauces with toppings like aonori (seaweed flakes) and katsuoboshi (shaved bonito flakes).

As a result, takoyaki exploded in popularity, with shops and street stalls opening all over Osaka. It also helped that takoyaki was a relatively cheap snack. In 1954, 8 pieces of takoyaki went for 10 yen.

Once weekly magazines began covering the trend, takoyaki soon took the nation by storm, with shops and yatai (street food carts) opening beyond Osaka’s city limits. In the late 70s, Yachan-do in Fukuoka Prefecture opened the first franchise takoyaki store, kicking off a wave of retail chains devoted to takoyaki.

Akashi rebranded their tamagoyaki as akashiyaki in 1988 to capitalize off takoyaki’s success, though many residents still call it tamagoyaki. However, many Osaka shops continued selling takoyaki without sauce or toppings.

The best takoyaki in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto

Odaiba Takoyaki Museum
The Odaiba Taokyaki Museum in Odaiba DECKS.

Eating takoyaki at a festival is undoubtedly the best, but if a sit-down restaurant is more your thing, here are a few popular takoyaki shops in Japan’s Big Three — Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto:

Tokyo

It’s Tokyo, so expect some unexpectedly delicious takes on takoyaki. Ginza Fukuyoshi near Ginza Station is known for their “Tabamozza” takoyaki: Tabasco sauce, shrimp, and mozzarella cheese. Nanchan near Tokyo’s Okachimachi Station sells takosen: takoyaki sandwiched between shrimp-flavored rice crackers. The shrimp theme is no coincidence — serving takoyaki with shrimp paste became a fad in Ginza when takoyaki first made its way to Tokyo.

For those looking to try multiple takoyaki varieties, be sure to visit the Odaiba Takoyaki Museum at DECKS Tokyo Beach. Despite the name, it’s more of a mini takoyaki food court than an educational institution, with several shops serving Osaka-style takoyaki.

Osaka

As the birthplace of takoyaki, Osaka bursts at the seams with renowned takoyaki shops. The original Aizuya is still in operation and even sells the takoyaki predecessor rajioyaki. Abeno Takoyaki Yamachan switches things up by using vegetables and fruits like pineapple in the batter, earning it an avid fanbase.

True takoyaki connoisseurs should check out TAKOPA Takoyaki Park in Universal Citywalk Osaka. Like the Odaiba Takoyaki Museum, TAKOPA boasts some of the best takoyaki restaurants in Osaka under one roof. Each restaurant has its unique take on takoyaki, like Tamaya, the proud recipient of the Michelin Bib Gourmand award, which uses lobster filling and a batter made from over 20 ingredients.

Kyoto

True to its reputation for tradition, Kyoto is home to numerous shops staying true to the original Osaka recipe. But other shops get creative like Gion Kimutako near Gion Shijo Station, which made its mark on the map selling giant sticky takoyaki with whole baby octopi. If that’s a bit much for you, try local favorite Takoyasu, popular for whipping up takoyaki with ponzu sauce.

Making takoyaki at home

Takoyaki eventually made its way into the average citizen’s kitchen thanks to the mass production of the takoyaki pan in the 80s, which in turn gave rise to home takoyaki parties, or takopa (タコパ).

Takoyaki ingredients
A typical layout of takoyaki ingredients (Source: Wikipedia)

Basic takoyaki doesn’t require many ingredients. The batter usually consists of wheat flour, eggs, and dashi. Traditional fillings include diced octopus, green onions, red pickled ginger, and tenkasu, all fairly easy to find at your local Asian grocery store or online. Because takoyaki is such a forgiving recipe, it’s easy to substitute fillings more suitable to your tastes. Swap out the traditional octopus for chicken or other meats, or forego meat altogether with mushrooms, cheese, or tofu.

Even if octopus puts you off, it’s worth giving the traditional takoyaki a shot. While takoyaki is readily available at supermarkets nationwide, there’s nothing quite like eating piping hot takoyaki at a festival on a summer day in Japan.

Sources

[1] たこ焼きの誕生. Aizuya.

[2] 実は名店ぞろい!京都でおすすめしたい人気たこ焼き屋TOP10. macaroni.

[3] 連載 明石のたからもの-10 明石焼 (玉子焼). Akashi City.

[4] TAKOPA Takoyaki Park. Universal Citywalk Osaka.

[5] 東京の美味しいたこ焼き店20選!カリカリもふわふわも. Tabelog.

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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