The Fish That Isn’t: Taiyaki

Taiyaki – a kind of filled pancake–are one of my favorite traditional Japanese treats.

The fish-shaped cakes are easy to find–there’s a taiyaki vendor on the approach to many of Japan’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and every festival has a taiyaki stand. Traditionally filled with sweetened adzuki bean paste or custard cream, I’ve also seen them filled with ice cream, chocolate custard, coconut cream, and jellies.

One thing they don’t contain is fish.

During my first trip to Japan I saw them, but didn’t try them because I wasn’t sure whether or not they were safe for a person with fish allergies to eat. (They looked just fine, but I was afraid to show my ignorance by asking, and I exercise caution where allergies are concerned.) After returning home, I mentioned taiyaki to my son, who found it intensely amusing that I hadn’t eaten one–and disabused me of the erroneous notion that these popular traditional cakes contained any fish.

I love food history, especially when it comes to Japanese food (hence, my minor embarrassment over not knowing these cakes were safe to eat at first), so even before my return to Japan I set out to investigate the history of this tasty treat.

The name taiyaki references the traditional shape of the cake, which resembles a sea bream (tai). They originated during the Meiji era, and although the traditional shape is most common, I’ve also had some shaped like Magicarp (a fishy Pokemon):

The custard cream ones are my favorites, and though I’ve tried other flavors, I keep coming back to the luscious, sweet cream–in many cases, served warm and freshly baked. Irresistible!

Have you ever tried taiyaki? If so, which filling to you like best? And if not – what’s your favorite pastry treat?

3 thoughts on “The Fish That Isn’t: Taiyaki

  • March 2, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    Hallo, Hallo Ms Spann,

    OOh, my! We share this in common – (not just our ‘fish’ allergies!) a love of foodie history & of trying new foods! 🙂 One of my favourite ways of feeling acquainted with a new area to visit is to pull up a collection of sites for their restaurants, coffeehouses, teahouses, bistros, bakeries and other indie foodie haunts that not only give a taste for the regional delights you’ll find (as you know areas always have a *favourite!* dish or ingredient – the closer you go to a Northern Tier State the closer you find poutine fries on the menu! or how pimento cheese is not just for crackers anymore in the Mid-Atlantic / Southeast). I’m still at a loss if I’d appreciate eating cheese curds — but when in Rome, as they say!

    As soon as you said ‘pancake’ I felt this would be a treat I’d appreciate! Part of your description of these fish reminded me of the Boston Creme doughnut? I wonder if the texture is like a pancake or cake doughnut? Either way, they are *adorable!* I wonder… if there is a way to bake them at home? I love finding new recipes but also, as I love to bake – I love seeking out new challenges!

    The custard creme I admit is most likely the one I’d eat the most, too! #beyondyum

    • March 4, 2018 at 7:55 pm

      Jorie, the texture is almost a cross between a pancake and a Boston Creme doughnut – and the creme is almost identical. It’s a vanilla custard cream of exactly the texture in the best Boston Creme doughnuts (I know, because Boston Creme was my dad’s favorite doughnut and one of my favorites as well!!) So yes, if you imagine a Boston Creme doughnut without the chocolate on top, it’s a pretty good analogy!

      • March 4, 2018 at 11:39 pm

        Oooh this fantastic news!! 🙂

        There was something in your descriptions of this treat which made me of my favourite doughnut growing up – I’ve entertained a few new ones over the years, but when you love something as a child, somehow it stays with you. Plus it’s the texture I loved the most – similarly, whilst at one of those international fairs they put on for school children (back in the early 90s) my favourite part of going to each of the countries was trying to see what I could afford to sample – food wise! In some ways, I wish they had offered small samples for free as it would have been a bit more fun – evenso, I had a lot of lovely conversations all food-centred as part of how I love to learn about new cultures & traditions are through the foods which are give us a smile about being ‘elsewhere’.

        Wait til I tell Mum! She thought she’d love this because of my analogy! Cheers!

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