Before I stopped eating meat, octopus was probably my favourite. But I gave it up before discovering the joys of Takoyaki so I thought that I would never find out for myself what those delicious-looking little pancake balls taste like. On paper, it sounded like the perfect dish for me but sadly, being both vegetarian and Canadian, it was also very out of reach.
Happily, vegetarian and vegan versions of foods are becoming more readily available. There are several vegan shrimp alternatives that I can get right now and although they don’t quite taste like shrimp, they also don’t quite not taste like shrimp, and I generally find them tasty.
And so, a little while ago, a good friend of mine made me vegan shrimp Takoyaki, and let me tell you, it was delicious.
Ok so here’s the thing – Takoyaki is actually pretty easy to make as long as you have the proper tools. I.e. one of these things:
Takoyaki makers usually come in two varieties, the grill type which are machines you plug into an outlet and they heat up internally, and the pan types which are…pans. Like frying pans. You put them on your stovetop and that’s how they heat up. I bet you can make some funky-looking omelets with those!
Takoyaki is mostly dough and once you put the Takoyaki sauce on top and the kewpie mayo along with some seaweed and bonito if you’re into that stuff, then you can hardly taste whatever little chewy bits of protein are in there. It’s really mostly for the texture. I bet you can make it with chicken and it will still be reasonably similar tasting. Toriyaki is something else though… And you can make completely vegetarian version as well. Apparently, Kobe-style Takoyaki contains cabbage so I bet it’s a little like okonomiyaki balls on a stick. I want to try making that!
When I say Takoyaki is all about the batter, I mean it. Aside from some type of pan to make your pancakes into spheres, the batter is the most important thing here. And like a lot of traditional recipes, there are countless versions.
You can buy Takoyaki flour which is a mix of Dashi, all-purpose flour, baking powder, eggs, salt, and soy sauce, or make your own by mixing these things together. That’s the basic idea. However, the relative amounts of each ingredient vary a lot depending on the recipes. Some omit baking powder while others add some sugar. You want to end up with a thick liquid batter, no clumps. I don’t actually know what pancake batter is like but Takoyaki batter is thicker than crepe batter. Basically, as thick as you can make it while still calling it a liquid.
Once you got the batter consistency and taste down, you can add whatever you like.
Besides the classic octopus (or vegan varieties thereof) and chives, you can add or substitute shrimp, tempura flakes for a bit of crunch, cheese, bacon, ground pork, kimchi, mochi and so on. When my friend made them, like I said, we had vegan shrimp in there. When I made them, I had shitake, scallions, and little bits of crispy tofu. The tofu uncrisped but the mushrooms were great in there.
So, here’s the thing. I’ve only ever used the grill version of Takoyaki makers but I think the pan versions work in pretty much the same way.
First you need to oil everything. Takoyaki are fried. Not deep fried but still be generous with the stuff. You need them to really swirl around easily. Another thing I had to learn is that you don’t mix your extras into the batter. Except for the tempura flakes, those are good when well distributed. But for the rest, you fill those little bowls in your Takoyako maker with batter then you plock your extras in. It’s not the same if they’re mixed in. By the way, it’s gonna overflow, that’s ok!
Alright so now you have this pan or grill full of half spheres of batter with little pieces of stuff sticking out, what’s next?
Make sure you get some sort of stick. Chopsticks can work, I like skewers personally. Let the batter set for a little bit then push on one side of each sphere. What you are trying to do is to get the batter to rock back and forth and make sure nothing is stuck. Since you can’t get a spatula under there, you have to be sure it was all properly oiled. Once the underside is sliding very easily and seems to be a good color, push each half ball 90 degrees so half of it is sticking out. The batter in the middle that’s still liquid will settle at the bottom creating a sphere with a missing quarter. You can also break off any extra batter that spilled out of the cups on the side and stick it back into your Takoyaki centers.
After a few more seconds to let the bottom form, push it another 90 degrees so what was the bottom of your takoyakis originally is sticking out from the top. This is how you end up with a sphere. And don’t worry, it’s not going to be empty in the middle. The batter swooshes around and fills up all the space. It also plumps up a bit as it cooks. Especially if you added baking powder.
At this point, you’re going to want to get them out. This is also pretty easy. Skewer them with some toothpicks or pick them up with chopsticks, you can even just use a fork and jab them if you want but that seems very unauthentic. I’m writing this as I imagine an alternative recipe that incorporates flaming Cheetos somehow. I’m saying don’t listen to my thoughts on authenticity.
Now comes what is actually the hardest part of the recipe. At least it was for me. And it might take you a few tries to get it right. Don’t, I can’t stress this enough, don’t taste them right away. These things are hot, and the spherical shape just concentrates all the burning heat somehow. You have to let them sit for a few minutes, or you will burn off all your tastebuds, and then you won’t be able to enjoy your hard work!
In the meantime, you can do some plating. Plot them down one next to the other and stripe them with Takoyaki sauce, or teriyaki sauce if you prefer. Turn 45 degrees and do the same with some kewpie, and yeah, it has to be kewpie. Regular mayo is not the same. And then pour on some seaweed flakes, because it’s just not the same if it isn’t suspiciously green and bam, you got yourself some Takoyaki.
It’s actually a pretty easy recipe that can impress dinner guests just by virtue of being round. It’s fun to serve at parties and it goes great with drinks.
I realize that buying a pan to make just one specific dish may sound a bit extravagant but you can sphere all sorts of stuff… Aebleskiver… Bubble waffles.. ok so they’re all some type of pancake but so what. Small package spheres are great…
Ok, if you don’t want to buy a pan, you can make your batter a little thicker, just thick enough to hold together. Mix your add-ins into the batter and make little balls you can then fry, just like doughnut holes. There you go, no special pan needed. But you’re missing out on a really fun-looking pan!