Sunday 8 April 2018

Octopus Balls Bridging the East/West Divide

Takoyaki Pringles - only in Kansai
In a previous post I mentioned that in contrast to the UK north/south divide, in Japan the division is East (Kantō =関東) vs West (Kansai =関西) particularly with regard to culture and language. For example, in contrast to the national stereotype of Japanese as quiet, indirect, and polite, people from Kansai (especially Osaka) are said to be blunt and direct (verging on rude), but also quirky and humour-loving (as well as careful with their money). Even escalator etiquette is different between Tokyo and Osaka: the former stand on the left and the latter on the right, apparently a remnant of the dominant samurai vs merchant populations.

One of the biggest differences between Kanto and Kansai though is the food. Dashi stock tastes and is made differently, with Tokyoites favouring stronger more pungent tastes (stinky natto fermented soya beans are much more popular in the East than the West!). A well-known food which originated in Osaka - "invented" in 1935 by a street vendor who drew inspiration from akashiyaki - are octopus balls known as takoyaki. These are small round dumplings made from batter with pieces of octopus in the middle usually covered with a Worcestershire type brown sauce, mayonnaise, and dried bonito shavings (which wriggle around on top due to the heat as if they were alive!). Tako (タコ - the kanji is not widely known) means octopus and yaki comes from yaku (焼く) meaning to cook, fry, or grill: many Japanese foods contain this word (such as as yaki-tori, okonomi-yaki, or yaki-soba).
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Although originating in Osaka, takoyaki are common all over Japan today, from supermarkets to convenience stores. People also make these at home using a cast iron electric takoyaki pan like the one pictured. It takes quite a bit of skill to do this well though as the balls have to be turned with a pick in the semi-spherical mould so that all the batter is cooked thoroughly and a ball shape is created. Watching a professional turn hundreds of octopus balls in lightning fast fashion is quite a sight to behold!

In Tokyo takoyaki is definitely a snack food, something one might pick up on the way home after a night out drinking. The picture shows our local takoyaki truck which parks itself in front of the station at night to entice intoxicated office workers, in the fashion of the British burger or kebab van. In Osaka, though, takoyaki is eaten as a main dish with rice, something which never fails to surprise Tokyoites.