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Taiyaki, which translates directly to "baked sea bream," is a confection in Japan that became popularized in Meiji-era Tokyo, a period beginning in the late 1860s and ending in the early 1910s. Made using waffle or pancake batter shaped in the likeness of a fish, the most common filling is a mix of azuki red bean paste and sugar, both of which are boiled and ground together before being smacked in between two halves of a fake fish waffle.
You may not know this if you’ve been reading recent coverage of the confection’s appearance in New York. Yesterday afternoon, Scott Lynch of Gothamist published an article entitled “Get Soft Serve In Fish-Shaped Pancake Cones Because Sure, Why Not?” It’s a small, 250-word piece that details last Friday’s opening of Taiyaki NYC, a soft-serve ice-cream joint in New York's Chinatown. Similar to its namesake dish, Taiyaki NYC serves ice cream in fish-shaped waffle cones, baked just long enough so that they’re warm and golden brown. The ice cream comes in a variety of flavors, from matcha to black sesame.
But Gothamist's piece takes a tone that’s confoundingly dismissive. Lynch uses the qualifier “the latest Instagram-bait outfit” when talking about taiyaki, bucking it to the larger trend of “exciting ice cream” that’s popped up in recent years. After pausing for a beat to consider any cultural history of taiyaki (“significance, cultural or otherwise,” he writes), he relegates the history to this: “In reality, Taiyaki is actually a popular sweet snack enjoyed all over Asia, particularly in Tokyo, where it's thought to have originated.”
The article’s too short to get Mad Online™ about, but the rich, complex history of taiyaki, still, is flattened by Gothamist’s coverage. Taiyaki itself is a variant of imagawayaki, a round red bean cake first sold in Japan’s Edo period, just before the Meiji era. Afterwards, a few sweet shops began constructing imagawayaki in the shape of tai, an obscenely expensive fish, making taiyaki a real hit. The fillings of taiyaki have since expanded beyond red bean paste; there’s chocolate, vanilla, matcha green tea filling, along with savory options like sausage. The snack became even more popular after the release of a children’s song “Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun” (literally “Swim! Taiyaki”) in 1976. It’s a real banger, so listen to it above.
The Gothamist piece is part of a more disconcerting trend surrounding the way American food writers talk about Japanese cuisine. To wit: “The weird and wacky flavors of Kit Kat in Japan,” one CBS News headline reads. Its tease isn't much better: “Check out some of the strangest candy flavors you'll ever see.“ Or, as Mike Fahey of Kotaku once wrote when sampling Kit-Kat flavors, “Weird stuff? From Japan? I'm just as shocked as you guys are.” These are among the laziest tendencies of writing about other people’s food—treating it as a punchline while operating under the assumption that we can lay claim to it.
And taiyaki's appearance in New York isn't new. Even I, forever food illiterate, knew what it was. There are actually a few other places in the city that sell it (some Yelp searches confirm that specialty Japanese stores across the country sell it, too). I so vividly remember finishing a dinner in Koreatown, after which my friend took us to a nearby street vendor who sold taiyaki. I got one with vanilla custard filling. It was very good.
Taiyaki is located in New York’s Chinatown. Ever had it? Let us know in the comments!