Food News

This Japanese Dessert is Made from Fish-Shaped Waffles

September 19, 2016

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.

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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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“A traditional Japanese taiyaki is essentially like a soft pancake in the shape of a fish as a vessel for fillings. In Seattle there is a food truck making taiyaki with savory fillings.”
— Jessica

Taiyaki is located in New York’s Chinatown. Ever had it? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


jo December 19, 2023
help me im in a school and it wont let me leave. Their trying to do funny moments
btglenn September 22, 2016
Thank you for enlightening readers about taiyaki in the NY Times article. The Times food page is seems to emphasize the new and different in its recipes especially during the past year. Maybe they need a new food editor who is a little less chef.
margothand September 23, 2016
To btglenn -- Where do you see a reference to taiyaki in the NY Times? Probably it will cover taiyaki soon but I think the last time that publication covered taiyaki was in 1995, and it was positive, "Taiyaki, griddle cakes in the shapes of fish with sweet adzuki bean jam inside, have been a popular street snack for centuries."
Julie B. September 22, 2016
We have them in San Diego. A new sweet shop opened up in Kearny Mesa that serves it this way. Gotta go.
Jessica September 22, 2016
I've been to Japan three times and absolutely love taiyaki from the stands. However, the Korean version isn't the same as taiyaki, and has its own name, Bungeoppang. It looks the same, but I found their batter is different, it sometimes has glutinous rice flour in the batter which makes it really crunchy when cooked and chewy in texture. A traditional Japanese taiyaki is essentially like a soft pancake in the shape of a fish as a vessel for fillings. In Seattle there is a food truck making taiyaki with savory fillings.
webpossum September 22, 2016
that's really interesting. I had the savoury one in Vancouver and now that I think about it, it was a bit softer. The ones I've had in Toronto are called taiyaki (sold in Koreatown and Chinatown) but they're definitely on the crispy side so they're probably doing the Korean version. Both are delish though.

...and now I'm craving taiyaki. Sigh.
webpossum September 22, 2016
I second the recommendation for the custard filled ones! So cheap and tasty. I've also had savoury ones filled with vegetables. Embarrassed to admit how often I get the custard ones in Koreatown here in Toronto - and then maybe a few walnut cakes while I'm at it ;)
Veronica September 19, 2016
Thank you for talking a little about the history of Taiyaki! The experience gains so much more when you have more historical context. Also Taiyaki (with or without the ice cream) is delightful and I highly recommend it to anyone considering it. Choose chocolate filling over the bean paste filling if you don't like the texture of beans - red bean is delicious but can take some adjusting to for an American diet (it's very sweet and a little earthy).
Alexandra G. September 19, 2016
I saw this on instagram recently (for obvious reasons) are the cones actually any good??
mnr_t September 19, 2016
Taiyaki was available at the Minnesota State Fair last month! Yum!!