Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tako-Yaki at Azabu Matsuri

Summer in Japan means street festivals. This weekend my whole neighborhood was closed to traffic and the streets were lined with temporary food stalls. Starting in the afternoon, the festival-goers began to arrive, and by evening there was a solid crush of people, many in the colorful cotton summer kimono called yukata and nearly all of them balancing plastic cups of beer in one hand and a tray of fried noodles or skewered meat in the other. 
There are so many delicacies found only at festival food stalls. From the fried pancakes made of egg batter, pickles, cabbage, and bacon called okonomi-yaki ("whatever-you-like grill")
to the teeth-aching anzu-ame, an unripe, sour, pickled apricot dipped in a viscous syrup that makes a semi-solid coating of pure sweetness, to the whole fish with heads, fins, and guts intact roasted on a stick, there are plenty of things you would never get in any Japanese restaurant in America, or in most Japanese restaurants in Japan for that matter. 
One of the characteristic cooking methods at a street stall is the hotplate with indentions that mold the thing being cooked. The most famous are probably the ones shaped like a fish, complete with scales, which are usually filled with sweet red bean paste or occasionally custard. There are also a variety of foods cooked in round molds, both sweet and savory. The sweet tends to be a plain or filled pound cake called "baby castella" for some reason. It can also be shaped like a doll, castle, or the cartoon character Doraemon, as if kids needed any extra appeal to be convinced to eat cake. The savory version is like a condensed okonomi-yaki: an eggy batter with tasty additions like octopus tentacles, quail eggs, or cheese. 
The photos here show an extra-special, large-scale, festival-worthy version of tako-yaki, which are usually about the size of a golf ball but in this case were bordering on tennis ball size. They usually have chopped up bits of octopus providing some bite to the otherwise plain batter, and can be topped with a sweet soy-based sauce, mayonnaise, powdered nori seaweed, shaved dried bonito flakes, or any combination thereof. The tako-yaki we saw being made here, though, didn't just have little chunks of octopus in them - each ball contained an entire baby octopus. The guy who was cooking them seemed to be having a bit of trouble keeping all those legs inside the balls as he turned them over. 

The baby octopi were also available grilled on a stick, which is the favored method of serving street food from a stall. Other grilled on a stick options included periwinkles, scallops, squid (legs only or whole body), corn on the cob, chicken hearts and livers, beef tongue and sweetbreads, squares of pork belly, footlong frankfurters, raw cucumbers, and the aforementioned whole-body fish and sweet-sour apricots, and also the chocolate-and-sprinkle coated bananas and tornado potatoes. Suffice it to say that there are many opportunities to practice eating off a stick without the rest of the food falling off.

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