Let me just say this upfront: Many dumplings are spherical in shape and can only be described as balls. Go ahead and giggle like I did during the four-day Asian Dumplings photo shoot when photographer Penny De Los Santos repeatedly said “balls” to break up the tension. But seriously, round shaped dumplings have a large presence in the Asian dumpling repertoire. Consider classic Asian dumplings such as fried Chinese sesame balls (jin duei) and Indian gulab jamum (once referred to in a recipe as cakey balls). I’ll stop with the innuendos.
What got me hooked on making Japanese takoyaki is not their shape, nor the fact that their name literally means octopus balls, reflecting that they are traditionally filled with chunks of cooked octopus. Takoyaki resemble French profiteroles but they combine an unusual array of savory ingredients – dashi stock hydrates the wheat flour batter, the filling includes raw, cooked, and pickled items, and garnishes comprise mayonnaise, seaweed, shaved bonito flakes and tonkatsu sauce, which tastes like Worcestershire sauce. All of these seemingly disparate ingredients give donut-like takoyaki a savory, rich, tangy, sea-like taste. These dumplings remind me of Japan’s quirky culture and its penchant for building layer upon layer of subtlety to create wonderful foods.
In terms of Japanese dumplings, takoyaki is not as popular as gyoza but a close runner up. The dumplings are a Japanese street food enjoyed by many young people. In recounting her youth, my friend Maki gleefully talks about eating takoyaki after dancing up a storm at the discos. The dumplings are popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong too. I’ve witness hordes of Chinese hipsters in Kowloon (Hong Kong) around the takoyaki vendor. In the States, Japantowns and Japanese markets are where you are likely to find takoyaki. I’ve seen them at the Vancouver weekend night market in the Asian section of town.
Takoyaki equipment, filling options and batter mixes
What to do when you’re not near a takoyaki vendor? Make them yourself. You need a cast-iron pan with semi-spherical wells in them. There are special takoyaki pans sold at Japanese hardware/houseware shops but an aebeskilver type pan works. I used my as-seen-on-TV pancake puff pan; it’s the one I used for South Indian kuzhi paniyaram rice and lentil dumplings. Love the crosscultural uses, don’t you?
As for the filling, who has access to small quantities of boiled octopus? When I spoke to Japanese food authority Elizabeth Andoh (author of marvelous Japanese cookbooks such as Washoku), she told me that you can put whatever you’d like into takoyaki. That’s true. I’ve seen takoyaki recipes that called for using tempura bits and konyaku as filling. In that regard, takoyaki is like its Osaka sister, okonomiyaki, which is sometimes translated as “as you like it pancake.” For the filling, I prefer shrimp, scallion, cabbage and some pickled ginger, either the salty red variety or the tangy-sweet slices served with sushi.
There are takoyaki batter mixes but the clerks at Marukai, Mitsuwa and Nijiya markets that I ventured to suggested okonomiyaki batter mix, which is easier to find. I prefer to mix my own using cake flour, and have provided a takoyaki batter recipe below. Note that I use instant dashi stock powder, an acceptable practice. The brand I prefer has no MSG and is sold at Japanese, Korean markets, and some Chinese markets. Sushi-type pickled ginger is terrific, or go for the saltier and pretty shredded ginger sold in the refrigerated section of the markets.
For the tonkatsu sauce, check the Asian food aisle at the supermarket or just use Worcestershire sauce; the brand I purchased is carried at Japanese markets and there’s little English writing. Katsuo-bushi (Japanese shaved bonito flakes) imparts a lovely smokey quality and the seaweed injects a bit of the sea to takoyaki. The dumplings require these two Japanese staples so do make sure you have them on hand. They’re both readily available at Asian markets, health food stores, and specialty grocers. Buy katsuo-bushi in the standard, convenient small plastic packages, such as this one:
Tip for piping the mayonnaise
Regardless of what you’re squeezing, use a freezer zip-top plastic bag as a makeshift pastry bag and nozzle. Put your squeezable ingredient in a corner of the bag. To fashion the pastry bag tip, snip a small hole – a scant 1/4 inch wide – at the corner so you can squirt the sauce or frosting out.
Go ahead and squeeze and you should get thin lines. Practice on a flat surface if you’ve never used a pastry bag before. Below are photos of this nifty method as applied to mayonnaise.
You can use the plastic bag for decorating a cake, cupcake, or cookie. Just fill it with frosting or icing. The lines will not be smooth and pretty as what you see in a bakery. If you’re going for perfection, put decorative pastry tip in the corner of the bag.
Japanese Octopus Dumpling Balls
Hot from the pan, these dumplings are lightly crisp but they lose their crispness in less than a minute. That’s to be expected and is part of takoyaki’s unusual nature. If you’d like, substitute 1 1/3 cups homemade dashi for the dashi powder and water. Takoyaki dumplings are meant to be eaten hot from the pan (I’ve burnt my tongue several times) so line up your guests. See the tip on using a plastic bag to pipe out the mayonnaise in nice lines.
Makes about 16 dumplings, to serve 3 to 4 as a snack
6 ounces (1 1/3 cups) cake flour, such as Swansdown brand
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons instant dashi powder
1 large egg
1 1/3 cups water
3 large cooked shrimp, cut into peanut-size pieces (brimming 1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallion, white and green parts
2 tablespoons Japanese red ginger shreds or finely chopped pickled ginger, gently squeezed to remove excess moisture
2 tablespoons finely chopped green cabbage (omit hard center spine)
1 to 2 tablespoon canola oil
About 3 tablespoons Japanese tonkatsu sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or Chinese black vinegar
About 3 tablespoons mayonnaise (optional)
1 1/2 tablespoons aonori (ground dried seaweed), or 1 full-size sheet toasted nori (seaweed), cut into short, thin pieces
1/2 cup loosely packed Japanese dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
1. To make the batter, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and dashi powder in a bowl. Make a hole in the center. Whisk together the egg and water, then whisk into the dry ingredients to form a smooth batter. Transfer to a measuring cup. Set aside to bloom for at least 15 minutes, or cover with plastic and leave at room temperature for as long as 2 hours.
2. Have the filling ingredients ready near the stove, along with the batter. Make sure the garnishes are ready too as the dumplings are best eaten hot from the pan.
3. Heat the pancake puff, aebelskiver, or takoyaki pan over medium heat. Brush a light coating of oil in each well. Aim for a moderately warm pan as if you’re making pancakes. Too hot of pan will form craters on the surface and you want a smooth finish on these dumplings.
When the pan is sufficiently hot, pour batter into the pan to just shy of the rim. If your burner has hot spots, fill the wells above those hot spots last. If anything, there should be just a light sizzle when the batter hits the pan. Lower the heat if the sizzling is loud as that’s a sign that the pan is too hot.
4. Add 1 or 2 pieces of shrimp and generous pinches of scallion, ginger, and cabbage to each well. The batter level will rise a tad. Then wait for about 1 minute until the edges have begun to set or small bubbles have formed at the rim. When that happens, use two skewers to loosen each dumpling around the top edge and flip it over. Expect the dumplings to be pale in color at this stage.
Don’t fret about doing it neatly. Aim to flip it over when there’s still enough loose batter to form a round underside; some may look like Pacman but that’s fine. After about 1 minute, the batter should have set on the other side and you can tuck the dumpling into the well to cook evenly into a nice round shape.
Keep turning and rotating the dumpling for about 5 minutes, until the dumplings are golden and crisp. Use the skewers to transfer (stab the dumpling if you must) the dumplings to a plate. Let cool for about 1 minute before serving. Meanwhile, oil and repeat the cooking to make more takoyaki dumplings.
5. To serve, drizzle the tonkatsu sauce and squeeze (or pipe) mayonnaise atop the dumplings. Follow by sprinkling with seaweed and finish with the bonito flakes. Eat with forks or skewers, should you want to mimic the act of eating takoyaki on the street.
- Quick-and-easy way to pipe out the mayonnaise
- Takoyaki recipe from Shizuoka Gourmet in Japan
- A simple and tasty way to cook shrimp (on Vietworldkitchen.com)
- Indian kuzhi paniyaram – a similar shaped dumpling, this one is made from rice and lentil and prepared in the same kind of pan
- Okonomiyaki Japanese pancake – if you want to make another Osaka favorite a great recipe on 101cookbooks.com (Heidi describes it as a pizza but you’ll get the idea)