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May 21, 2006

Takoyaki

Dominic Armato
Despite traveling to Japan numerous times before becoming a rabid fan of Iron Chef, takoyaki somehow snuck under my radar until one episode when the BDJ (Bimbo Du Jour, for those not familiar with IC shorthand... it requires some explaining) seemed positively horrified when it was suggested that the Iron Chef seemed to be preparing a variation on the dish. Now, I subscribe to the theory that we need not be of similar tastes for a critic to serve as an accurate barometer with which I may measure the likelihood that I will enjoy whatever he or she is critiquing. Over the years, I've applied this theory to film with great success. Roger Ebert and I disagree on a great, great many things, but over the years I've learned to filter his reviews to the point where I can predict when I will enjoy a film he pans, and vice-versa. In similar fashion, if an Iron Chef BDJ curdles at one of Hattori-san's prognostications, it's usually a pretty good indication that the dish in question is something I'll love. As such, takoyaki was high on the hitlist for this trip.

Dominic Armato
As it turns out, her lack of excitement wasn't due to takoyaki being a strange or unusual dish, but rather due to its lack of refinement. Takoyaki is greasy and fried, a chunk of cooked octopus suspended in the center of a ball of fried egg batter and basted with a sweet soy-based sauce. My impression is that it's known in Japan mostly as junkfood, or in even less flattering fashion, as booze food. Indeed, the first time I actually saw it in person, it was being served from a convenience store window to a fairly young crowd that was... less than steady. Naturally, this only further piqued my interest. So it was with great interest that I came across what appeared to be a fast food joint devoted to takoyaki. Gindaco is a chain that I could tell you more about if I could read the website. All I've managed to determine is that they span multiple countries (a Google search turned up photos of a Taipei branch), and in a move that may earn my undying respect, they do only one thing and do it well.

Dominic Armato
The Gindaco we fell into is located at Tokyo Dome City, a fairly corny amusement park and mall that surrounds the the Tokyo Dome, aka the Big Egg, home of the renowned Yomiuri Giants and the far less renowned (but far more beloved, at least in my household) Nippon Ham Fighters. In short, the ideal locale for upscale junkfood. The menu at Gindaco is limited to three items, all of which seem to be the same takoyaki with slightly different toppings. The preparation was pretty much as I'd seen it before. Takoyaki is made on a griddle with perfectly spherical pits that form the balls. The batter is poured over the entire griddle, and then a little bit of cooked octopus is dropped into each pit. Once the mixture has solidified a bit, the surrounding semi-firm batter is pulled over the top of the octopus, and the ball is flipped upside-down so that the other half can cook. I'd seen this process before, but the one thing that surprised me was the consistency of the batter. It wasn't the least bit thick... basically liquid. If I were to attempt to reverse-engineer the dish, that certainly wasn't how I would have started, but this is why they're running an international takoyaki empire and I'm not.

Since it was a first time experience, we opted to start with the basic takoyaki. It was topped with some of the aforementioned sweet soy-based sauce, some type of dried, shredded seaweed and shaved bonito. And it was really tasty. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. For starters, the outer crust was extremely crisp, and had a great caramelized flavor. In between the crust and the octopus wasn't the heavy, doughy substance that I'd anticipated, but rather a very light, fluffy, moist layer that deflated and collapsed when bitten, and was nicely seasoned with some vegetable bits and other flavors I couldn't quite identify. And finally, at the heart of the takoyaki, was a marble-sized morsel of cooked octopus... the "tako" part of takoyaki... which didn't seem to be seasoned, but provided a nice little chewy bit to anchor the light crispiness of the rest of the snack. We enjoyed the takoyaki so much that we went back to try another. It was, undoubtedly, a tough choice, but in the end we opted to skip the light shredded green onion topping of the negidaco in favor of the mayonnaise-saturated teritama. It seemed only appropriate, given the less-than-healthy nature of the dish. Though some mayonnaise-averse members of our party were less than impressed with the second round, I found it to be a remarkable improvement over the first. The teritama (pictured at the top) adds a huge dollop of what I suppose could be called egg salad, except that it's about 80% mayonnaise and 20% egg. Plus, there's a symbolic little dash of togarashi. I don't know that it affects the flavor appreciably, but I support chile pepper in all forms. As mayo-dipping European fried potato eaters can attest, there is nothing finer than mayonnaise when it comes to dipping fried foods. Add to this the fact that sweet soy and mayo are a great pair, and you've got a winner. I'd love to give the negidaco a taste next time, but I don't see it topping this.

Of course, this is my only experience with takoyaki, and it's a chain, no less. For all I know I'm shilling for the Long John Silver's of Japan. So while I'd like to expand my takoyaki horizons in the future, in the interim I'm happy to label Gindaco's product awesome. And if anybody can translate the franchise page of their website, let me know, K?

Comments

A little bit of surfing around the HotLand (Gindaco's licensing corporation) page lead me to their English-version franchise site:
http://www.hotland.co.jp/english/index.html
The translation is a little awkward in places, but you can catch the main idea. If you want me to translate the Japanese page, I can.

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