Japan is famous for its irresistible street food, from piping hot takoyaki balls to classic okonomiyaki pancakes. However, one of the country’s most iconic – and photogenic – snacks is taiyaki.
These little fish-shaped treats are a traditional Japanese dessert that's somewhere between a cake and a waffle, typically filled with sweet red bean paste. Commonly sold fresh off the pan at festivals and street food stalls, you can also find modern versions filled with all kinds of delicious centers at specialist taiyaki shops. Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about this quintessential Japanese snack.
For another popular Japanese dessert, see our guide to Japanese pudding (purin)!
What is taiyaki?
Taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a popular type of Japanese street food, instantly recognizable thanks to its striking fish shape complete with intricate fins and scales. The snack takes its name from the words tai, meaning sea bream (鯛), and yaki, meaning to bake or grill (焼き).
Despite sounding like a savory Japanese fish cake, taiyaki is actually usually sweet. The exterior is a cross between a cake and a waffle, with a deliciously chewy batter that’s crisp on the outside. Traditionally, the dessert is filled with sweet red bean paste (anko), however these days you can find varieties stuffed with all sorts of tasty fillings like chocolate, matcha, sweet potato and taiyaki custard. You can even get taiyaki ice cream cones!
Taiyaki stands are a common sight at festivals, however you can also find shops that specialize in taiyaki all across the country. To make them, the batter is poured into a special pan with little molds that give them their characteristic shape and imprint the cute features of a fish on the outside. Wherever you get them, they should be enjoyed straight away to ensure they taste their best and the texture is the perfect balance of crisp and fluffy!
The history of taiyaki
Although taiyaki is thought to have first been sold as a street food in 1909 in Tokyo, its origins actually date back to the Edo period. The snack is essentially a reimagining of imagawayaki, a thick round pancake filled with red bean paste that was popularized in the late 1700s. As time went on, vendors needed to come up with ways to refresh their product and attract more customers – one of which was to bake them in different shapes.
The fish-shaped version was a hit, and taiyaki quickly spread across Japan and later the world. Of course, the innovation didn’t stop there, and new variations of batter flavor and taiyaki fillings continue to be developed to this day. You can even get frozen taiyaki to heat up and enjoy in the comfort of your own home!
Why is taiyaki fish shaped?
So, of all the different possible shapes this delicious dessert could be molded into, why was a seabream such a popular choice? Although we can’t say for certain, there are several possible explanations.
During the Meiji era, seabream was an expensive dish that was only eaten on special occasions such as weddings. In addition, the fish has long been considered a symbol of good fortune in Japan. In fact, even the name tai is considered auspicious because it rhymes with the word medetai, which means joyous or prosperous. Thus taiyaki could be seen as an inexpensive way for ordinary people to enjoy this lucky fish.
Taiyaki has now become such a key part of Japanese pop culture that some people believe the way you eat yours can give an insight into your personality. For instance, if you bite into the head first you’re an optimist whereas if you dig in from the tail end you’re calm and romantic!
Types of taiyaki fillings
One of the great things about taiyaki is how many different types there are, each with a unique and mouthwatering filling to enjoy. Here are some of the most common:
Anko, or red bean paste, is the classic taiyaki filling. It’s found in all sorts of Japanese wagashi sweets, and made by cooking, sweetening and mashing adzuki beans. You can adjust the texture to be completely smooth or slightly courser depending on your preference.
Taiyaki custard is a slightly more modern filling than anko, and can give the snack an enticing vanilla flavor and floral scent.
Matcha green tea is another quintessentially Japanese flavor, and works really well as a taiyaki filling. You can add the powder to a custard mix for a vibrant green color and taste that’s not overly sweet.
Chocolate and chocolate hazelnut spread are both popular and modern filling choices for taiyaki, and perfect for people who have a sweet tooth!
5. Sweet potato
A more unusual but equally delicious filling is sweet potato, which is mashed up and mixed with sugar to make a paste a little like anko.
6. Ice cream
One of the more recent creations is the taiyaki ice cream cone. It looks a little different to regular taiyaki, with the mouth of the fish left open to hold scoops of smooth ice cream that contrast beautifully with the crisp and chewy cone.
You’ll often find that the taiyaki fillings on offer will vary with the time of year, as people make use of seasonal ingredients. For instance, in spring you may see pink sakura taiyaki while in autumn you might come across taiyaki filled with chestnut paste. Some specialist stores also experiment with more unusual savory taiyaki recipes, so keep an eye out for interesting options such as:
Another way that shops create innovative new types of taiyaki is by altering the batter that they use to make them. For example, you might come across variations where the outside of the taiyaki is flavored with matcha, chocolate or sakura (cherry blossoms). There are even modern styles of taiyaki cooked with croissant pastry to give the snack a unique French twist!
How to make taiyaki
While originally intended to be enjoyed fresh off the grill at a festival, these days it’s perfectly possible to find a taiyaki recipe online and make your own at home. The batter is relatively simple to whip up by combining cake flour, baking powder, egg, milk and sugar, and you can use absolutely anything you like as a filling. The only caveat is that you’ll need a special pan to cook them in if you want to get the authentic seabream shape, which you can purchase online.
Alternatively, you could learn directly from the experts by joining one of our taiyaki-making experiences in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district. It’s a great opportunity to practice making this iconic street food from scratch, plus experiment with some creative filling ideas!
Taiyaki is one of Japan’s most recognizable and Instagrammable sweet treats, so be sure to tuck into one during your next trip! Which flavor do you want to try first?