What is taiyaki? We're sure you've seen the ubiquitous fish-shaped cake all over social media. But unlike its shape, taiyaki is filled with azuki bean paste or custard cream – not fish.
Taiyaki means "baked sea bream" in Japanese. Sea bream is the nickname for a species of saltwater fish called tai in Japan. Although this food looks like a fish, taiyaki is actually a small cake with a sweet filling, making it a sweet treat.
This Japanese street food is cute, easy to eat, and of course delicious. Learn more about this unique Japanese snack with our guide to taiyaki!
First there was imagawayaki, an Edo period (1603 to 1868) Japanese dessert and snack sold from food stalls. An imagawayaki was a round cake typically filled with sweet red bean paste, or anko. Other sweet fillings—like custards and preserves—as well as savory fillings—like curry, meat, and vegetables—could also be found.
The exact origin of the iconic taiyaki fish shape is unknown. Still, it’s said that imagawayaki sellers, from what’s now Tokyo, decided to try making the cakes fish-shaped, since the tai fish is a symbol of luck. The word tai is like the word “medetai,” which means happy or prosperous. This newly shaped snack sold better, and so taiyaki became the norm.
How Taiyaki Are Made
The fish-shaped cake is made from a batter similar to a pancake or waffle batter, although taiyaki batter is normally a bit thinner in order to really fill and settle into the fish-shaped molds. This way, the taiyaki comes out with a detailed face, fins, and scales.
The taiyaki is filled before being sealed and then baked until golden brown. The texture of taiyaki is crispy around the edges and a bit chewier and denser—compared to a typical pancake—toward the filled center. This is so the taiyaki will hold up to being stuffed.
Though the traditional sweet red bean paste filling is still a popular choice, modern interpretations of taiyaki have led to new fillings and flavors. Custard cream, chocolate, and sweet potato are just some of the many options. More savory fillings—like cheese, gyōza (dumpling) filling and sausage—are also available at some locations.
We can’t talk about modern spins on taiyaki without mentioning taiyaki ice cream. The taiyaki acts as the cone for any ice cream flavor, with either anko or custard hidden in the bottom of the tail. Especially popular during the summer, taiyaki filled with ice cream can be found in selfies across the internet and around the world, in major cities like NYC.
Another modern interpretation of taiyaki is puku puku tai, a crisp, fish-shaped snack filled with mousse. The sweet mousse filling comes in a variety of flavors, like caramel, chocolate, strawberry and more.
Where To Find Taiyaki
Today, taiyaki are still popular in Tokyo as well as across Japan and around the globe. They're sold at food stands during festivals or matsuri in Japan, but they can also be found frozen in certain supermarkets. You can always try making them yourself with a taiyaki mold, slightly thinned pancake/waffle batter, and your preferred sweet filling.
If you're on the hunt for additional sweets, head to Bokksu Boutique. You can choose a Japanese snack box subscription for a combination of new treats and beloved favorite Japanese candy box sweets to satisfy cravings. Our Bokksu Japanese subscription box can come as a monthly box subscription; this includes new treats and savory delicacies straight from Japan’s most talented snack makers. Try your first box and see what you think!
Wanna see what taiyaki looks like up close? This sakura mochi taiyaki was available for a limited time at McDonald's Japan!