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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ALSO OUT THERE

Fish-shaped 'taiyaki' is always evolving


Staff writer

"Taiyaki," a fish-shaped pancake of sorts made of flour and filled with "azuki" sweet bean paste, has been around for a century.

News photo
Pancake monger: An Onagaya "taiyaki" stall in the Kamata district of Ota Ward, Tokyo, serves a customer Friday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

It's as commonplace as "daifuku" sticky rice cakes with the same bean paste and "watagashi" cotton candy.

Taiyaki became all the rage when "Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun" ("Swim! Taiyaki") emerged as an extremely popular children's song in 1976. Since then, innovators have offered variations in filling ranging from custard cream to sesame seed cream to cheese and sausage — anything to put between the batter and keep customers engaged.

The variations on the norm, though popular, weren't enough to fuel another craze, but taiyaki is staging a comeback nonetheless. This time around, it's not the filling but the fried outer cake that is key.

Conventional taiyaki is made by pouring waffle batter into a fish-shaped mold for each side and browning the outer part as it cooks. The new version remains white, though it is grilled the same way.

The secret of the color lies in a new batter ingredient: tapioca flour, the same used to make pearl tapioca, the small, whitish-transparent starch balls typically served with coconut milk as dessert in Chinese or other Asian restaurants.

"White taiyaki is chewy and differs from conventional taiyaki. Most people who eat it for the first time say they have never eaten anything like it," said Tomohiro Fukakusa, spokesman for Onagaya, which opened its first white taiyaki stand in Fukuoka Prefecture in December 2007.

The firm now has 85 franchise stands nationwide, selling white taiyaki for ¥130 to ¥160. Each stand sells an average of 700 or 800 a day, he said.

Fukuoka-based The Torigoe Co. provides the flour, for which it claims it has almost a 100 percent market share. Torigoe's six-month sales results surged 10-fold from a year ago, company spokesman Matsuki Adachi said.

Sales data covering all kinds of taiyaki cake flour are unavailable because taiyaki stands are usually either run by individuals or by small businesses, and thus there is no industry group compiling reliable data.

Torigoe began selling the flour a few years ago, but demand did not take off until January 2008 when "Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun" experienced a revival, Adachi said.

That, plus the fact that this year marks taiyaki's 100th anniversary, has provided good publicity, he said.

Taiyaki traces its 1909 origins to the Naniwaya Souhonten shop in the Asabu-Juban district in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Manager Masamori Kanbe says the store, however, is not interested in the white taiyaki craze as sales of regular taiyaki are sufficient.

Brand recognition, not periodic booms, has been the mainstay reason sales have never faltered at Naniwaya Souhonten, which often has people lined up outside, Kanbe said.

Even though most taiyaki stands see sales of the hot snack slacken during summer, Naniwaya Souhonten's remain stable. "Only the line gets shorter," Kanbe said.

Naniwaya Souhonten has always enjoyed healthy sales. But now the taiyaki industry as a whole is enjoying a boom thanks to the popularity of the tapioca variety, which has led customers to try the traditional style as well, said Satomi Ito, a self-claimed expert who eats taiyaki nationwide and writes a blog on it.

However, she believes the boom will be short-lived because people will tire of white taiyaki. For one thing, the flour's taste doesn't differ from shop to shop, and the tapioca version is more filling than other taiyaki, so people don't buy as much, she said.

"Taiyaki sales have risen rapidly but will fall rapidly as well," she said, predicting more stalls will open for about a year, lifting sales, but then there will be a downturn.

White taiyaki served chilled, however, may be the exception to the summer norm, Ito said. White taiyaki gets mushy more easily than regular taiyaki, and therefore shops wait until it gets cold to bag it for customers, she explained, adding that people like its crispy skin and chewy inside.

Women snap up cold desserts with white taiyaki, including taiyaki parfait, she added.

Adachi of Torigoe also said frozen white taiyaki is appealing — it's crispy like sherbet — while traditional taiyaki, when frozen, is hard as ice. "White taiyaki can provide new ways to eat taiyaki," he said.

In this occasional series, we focus on hot topics, people, events and trends in today's Japan.


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