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Sunday, April 1, 2001

OCTOBOOMY

Takoyaki wars shift to Tokyo


Staff writer

There was a time when takoyaki (octopus dumplings) were dismissed by Tokyoites as festival fare or a snack for kids. In recent years, though, takoyaki has found fans outside its birthplace of Osaka and joined the ranks of other Kansai-Kanto crossovers such as okonomiyaki and Yoshimoto-style comedy (think Downtown or London Boots).

Scrumptious octopus dumplings in Shimokitazawa

A number of takoyaki stalls and shops -- some franchise businesses and others privately owned, often by Kansai natives -- have opened up in Tokyo in recent years. And, according to at least one Osaka native and self-described "takoyaki-ist," this is the place to be for lovers of the dish, as more varieties can now be found here than anywhere else in the country.

"People in Tokyo are more open-minded about takoyaki than Osakans, so new types of takoyaki have appeared here," explains Mana Kumagai, author of "The Mystery of Takoyaki," which deals with the history of the dish.

The basic ingredients of takoyaki are simple: boiled octopus, a batter of flour, stock and egg, pickled ginger and scallions. These are usually cooked together in rows of dimpled iron grills.

Often shops include large glass windows so that waiting customers can watch the proceedings. And it's a treat to see: Workers must be fast and deft with the takoyaki pick to transform the troughs of batter into dumplings roughly the size of golf balls, to ensure even cooking and, of course, to keep the line moving.

The dumplings are served up hot -- usually eight pieces in a cardboard tray -- and topped with a rich sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

A team of Japan Times reporters decided to investigate Tokyo's takoyaki scene to find out what all the fuss is about. On a tip from takoyaki-ist Kumagai, we headed off to Shimokitazawa.

A mecca for young actors and musicians, Shimokita- zawa is the laid-back cousin of trendy Shibuya, where Tokyo's takoyaki boom reportedly got its start. Now the shops are concentrating in Shimokitazawa, and vying for customers in what has been dubbed the "takoyaki war." Ironically, Kumagai says Shimokitazawa is "the right place" to enjoy the snack because it has, like Osaka, an "easygoing atmosphere."

Within a 200-meter radius of the train station, there are at least six shops specializing in takoyaki, but the most famous by far is Osakaya -- our first stop.

Run by an elderly couple (rumored to be from Kansai), the shop offers authentic Osaka-style takoyaki. So convinced that the product speaks for itself, the owners refuse all requests for interviews. The lines offer further testimony. As Osakaya is open only in the evening and is sold out within a few hours, its famous takoyaki is an elusive treat. No member of our team, even the Shimokitazawa resident among us, was able to make the head of the line before the shutters closed.

Next stop, the franchise outlet Kyotako. This shop specializes in soft, light-flavored takoyaki topped with a specially made sweet sauce and pickled ginger. Notable was the generous size of the octopus pieces.

With tables and chairs inside, the shop looks like any fast-food restaurant -- and even has fried chicken, fried potatoes and gratin on the menu. But, according to Kumagai, it was the Kyotako chain that most helped takoyaki spread its tentacles through Tokyo.

About a minute's walk from Kyotako is Fusaroku, whose slogan is "It's badly shaped, but tastes great." Indeed, because Fusaroku uses a watery batter, the dumplings look something like smashed Ping-Pong balls. These are eaten without sauce or mayonnaise; the batter is lightly seasoned with fish stock, soy sauce and salt.

"This one has a light, refreshing taste; a nice change from the heavier varieties with sauce," one team member commented.

Franchise shop Shiawase- Yumedako adheres to more traditional takoyaki, putting an emphasis on crispiness.

"In addition to the entertainment of watching the cooking process, the crispiness of takoyaki helps explain the recent boom," Kumagai says. "We enjoy contrasts in texture, as with cream puffs or croquettes, and takoyaki has the added charm of chewy octopus inside."

Shiawase-Yumedako was a hit for providing the perfect balance between crisp surface and soft center -- even though it was a bit stingy with the octopus.

Takoyaki balls are often large, but the new franchise Daihachi-Takohanamaru makes them a comfortable mouthful. They're not as crispy as Shiawase-Yume- dako's, but the pickled ginger and tasty batter give the takoyaki here a nice accent.

While not technically takoyaki, our team couldn't overlook akashiyaki. Hailing from Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, and considered an ancestor of the octopus dumpling, akashiyaki is an elegant omelet ball with a piece of octopus inside. Okonomiyaki restaurant Daikonman in Shimokitazawa sells take-out akashiyaki at 700 yen for a 10-piece set.

Our British team member remarked that it reminded him of the Yorkshire pudding his mother used to make when he was a kid. "A little exotic, though," he said.

Now it's time to plan your own expedition. Here's a tip for all you first-timers with sensitive tongues: Gauge a dumpling's temperature before popping it in your mouth, and keep a cold drink near to hand.



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