Monday, 14 January 2013

Potless Street Food #1: Japanese Takoyaki

Street food is such a celebrated food genre and I am it's biggest fan. Normally created as a welcome cheap pitstop for lunch or an afternoon snack; it is not quite a meal but is almost always delicious. The stuff in this series aren't exactly restaurant reviews, haven't all been acquired on the 'street', and the food is definitely not home-cooked by me, but I feel the need to share my experiences on eating some of the weird and wonderful snacks I seem to encounter on a daily basis.

Having just arrived back from a winter sojourn to darkest Russia, I will soon be reporting my experiences of eating those delicious dumplings, Pilmeni, but for now my first street food report is on the totally amazing... Takoyaki!

Where did I eat it?

Mrs Ribeye is absolutely my weekend motivator. If it was up to me, my life would consist of a 90-10 ratio of staying at home and going to pubs. The wife, however, has her diary pre-packed with weekend 'fun' excursions for us to embark on, and today's takoyaki was bought at one of these days out, at Hyperjapan, the huge Earl's Court expo on all things Japanese.

Hyperjapan is my first ever expo. I'd seen Youtube clips of costumed punters waiting for autographs from sci fi 'celebrities' at Comicon in San Diego and had a vague idea of what to expect. And I was bang-on accurate. Expos are basically a huge school fete. Row after row of stands with curios to marvel at and stuff to buy, stuff to eat and drink, and more importantly, things with which to have your photograph taken standing next to. While you are in a costume.

The costume is the whole point of the expo.Because the theme at this one was Japan, the common look was to dress like something from a manga comic strip. Which apparently means wearing a judo suit and cape, carrying a slightly battered silver foil sword and teasing your hair into spiky clumps. Now, having seen a manga comic once or twice, I know the sort of look that these guys were attempting - and they fell a mile short. Never mind, if anyone at this expo looked stupid, it was me, the missus and the other 0.5% of the customers who were wearing our own normal clothes. The whole place was like a coolness alternate universe. You can only hope that some of these costumed lot got beaten up on the bus home.

At the far end of the convention centre was the food bit. Mrs Ribeye had booked us onto a sushi-making course for a half hour (it obviously wasn't enough to just go to this thing, we had to get bloody involved too), and then we were free to eat some lunch. Slight problem with Japanese food is that most of it is fried and Earl's Court's air ventilation system could barely cope. Never mind, let's not worry about having to take our clothes to the dry cleaners and just sit down to eat the sushi we just made (admittedly delicious) and select something a bit more unhealthy looking as an accompaniment. After quickly overlooking the katsu (breaded chicken? I can get that from Tesco thanks) station, tempura (boooring) and the omelette-looking stuff and quickly by-passing even more sushi, the Takoyaki stand it had to be - it had the biggest queue all made up of actual Japanese people, most in the 0.5% non-costume-wearing contingent. This can only be a good sign.

What is it?

Er, a good question. I did ask, but was told that it had something to do with squid. The cartoon of a squid next to the stand's sign had already told me that, but I was more concerned with more pressing matters - like what is all the different gungey things you are sprinkling over the dish?

Let's investigate this thing a bit deeper. A polystyrene tray is filled with six golf ball sized round deep fried dumplings. Then two sauces are artfully squirted on top - one brown, like a soy based sweet teryaki sauce and one creamy, like a spicy mayonnaise. Then after the sauces, a liberal sprinkling of a day-glo seaweed powder, followed finally (thank god) by a massive handful of fish flakes (benito, I think, like the stuff dashi stock is made from). Oh and then some pickled ginger for good measure.

Having checked the internet when I got home to find out what the contents of the dumplings was, I have deduced that it is a simple wheat flour batter with squiddy bits in. The traditional takoyaki is made with a filling of tempura scraps, but I can't believe that this was the case here. Where would the tempura scraps come from? From my place in the queue, I didn't see the tempura guys periodically popping over with a bucket. Obviously the left-over aspect of the dish was the original reason to create and make it, but not at Hyperjapan.

What did it cost?

£5. For a massive portion.

Most importantly, did I like it and would I eat it again?

The simple answer to this is... I would fly to Japan (and I hate flying with a passion) just to eat more takoyaki. It is unbelievably amazing. The uncostumed people in the queue looked totally out of place at Hyperjapan, and now I know why; they paid the entrance fee and then another fiver just to eat takoyaki! I cannot blame them. The dumplings are chewy and delicious, the sauces are moreish and cut the richness of the dish perfectly, the seaweed adds a salty savoury crunch, the benito flakes add some of that mythical addictive taste 'umami', and the pickled ginger is always welcome to my mouth party. Oh and sushi goes great with it too. Is there nothing that Japanese people aren't brilliant at? 

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