My girlfriend gave me the idea to create a healthy takoyaki recipe. I wanted to recreate the original takoyaki recipe from Osaka to make it gluten-free, low-carb, and keto-friendly. Just like the original (not-so-healthy) takoyaki, these umami-ful balls are still easy and fun to make with friends and family. The only difference is now you can enjoy them guilt-free!
Japan’s first healthy version of takoyaki
I’m confused. Did you really say these takoyaki are healthy?
Yup, that’s right!
If you’re Japanese or someone who’s spent a lot of time in Japan, I can imagine your head nodded to one side with your eyebrows deeply furrowed.
“Healthy takoyaki? Um, I still don’t get it.”
If you grew up in Japan, you know that takoyaki is takoyaki. Your preconception of what that word means has been shaped, poked, smothered in mayonnaise, and solidified in your brain since childhood.
On the other hand, if you’re someone from another country visiting Japan for the very first time, you’re going to have a completely different perspective, a fresh pair of eyes.
“Takoyaki? What’s that?”
“Octopus balls covered in mayonnaise that we can eat?”
“Oh, ok…thank you. I’ll pass on those.”
If you’ve never seen takoyaki in your life and still don’t have any clue about anything I’m talking about– great! You, my friend, are ready!
For the rest of you, I’m asking you to see these takoyaki like it’s your very first time to Japan…
Just like my My Zen teacher taught me, a “beginner’s mind is an open mind.”
What are takoyaki?
If you asked someone in Japan what comes to mind when you imagine a healthy Japanese snack…
9 out of 9 people wouldn’t say takoyaki.
If you’d ask those same nine people what typical Japanese snack goes really well with a cold draft beer or whisky highball…
I’d bet 8 out of 9 of them would say takoyaki.
I was in Osaka, the city where takoyaki originated, a few months ago. Osaka is famous for its street food: okonomiyaki, deep-fried kushikatsu, and takoyaki. It’s all delicious, but it’s not exactly health food. Walking down one of the main shopping streets in Dotonbori, I was surprised to see locals drinking beer at izakaya that were open at 10 in the morning!
Takoyaki are ball-shaped snacks that are cooked in a special pan with round molds about the size of golfballs. Batter is poured into each round mold. Once the bottom half of the batter is cooked, poking sticks are used to quickly turn each one and push in the undercooked batter until a ball shape is formed.
Originally, the batter for takoyaki is wheat flour-based. Each batter-filled mold is topped with small chunks of tako (octopus). Literally, tako-yaki means octopus that’s yaki-ed (grilled).
I love octopus, but I can understand why many Westerners get a bit weirded out by the chewy texture and those sucker cups on their tentacles. Ewe!
My new healthy recipe is for “no tako” takoyaki. You can also easily adapt this recipe to make it vegetarian.
Takoyaki ingredients– the original fillings and condiments
In addition to the minced or diced octopus, the standard recipe for takoyaki calls for negi (green onion), tenkasu (tempura “scraps”), and beni shoga (red pickled ginger).
After they’re cooked, the balls are brushed with takoyaki sauce, which is similar to Worcestershire sauce, decorated with thin, white zig-zag lines of mayonnaise, and sprinkled with green nori flakes (seaweed) and katsuo-bushi (dried bonito flakes).
I know to a Westerner, it sounds like some strange recipe for seafood-flavored donut balls, but there’s a reason why takoyaki became so popular all around Japan.
Who wouldn’t want to try “octopus balls”!?
I promise you, takoyaki taste way better than they sound.
I think it’s safe to classify takoyaki as “Japanese junk food”, but the recipe I’m going to share with you is the opposite of junk…
What if junk food was a superfood?
What fillings are inside these takoyaki ?
I decided to use minced pork, or what I now like to call “land octopus”, for this recipe. Of course, you can add chunks of real octopus instead, but I realize that not everyone can buy sliced tentacles at their local supermarket like I can.
Chicken, both minced and small chunks, also work as takoyaki filling. Good quality pork just gives them more flavor. In Japan, I buy minced “Kurobuta” (black pig) from Kyushu or Agu pork from Okinawa. Pieces of shrimp is another more authentic-like option that I’d recommend if you can’t find octopus.
Just like the original takoyaki recipe, I added finely chopped negi (green onion) and beni shoga (red pickled ginger) at my girlfriend’s request. I used store-bought beni shoga but next time I want to try to pickle my own.
I’ve also tried out a vegetarian version of this recipe just for an afternoon snack. So even if you choose to not hunt for “land octopus”, you can still enjoy these!
Tips for how to make Perfect Takoyaki Balls:
1. If it’s your first time making takoyaki, I recommend cooking 3 or 4 balls at a time rather than using all the batter at once. Flipping takoyaki takes some practice.
2. Use plenty of oil. Make sure all the round molds and the top surface is covered with coconut oil so the takoyaki don’t stick and are easy to turn. The coconut oil also adds a richness in flavor.
3. Flipping takoyaki is possible with a fork or chopsticks, but I highly recommend buying one or a pair of takoyaki picks. They just make flipping a whole lot easier.
4. To know if your takoyaki are ready to turn, you’ll see the outer crust starting to cook into a thin layer of cake. Stick a takoyaki pick all the way in– it will turn with very little nudging if the batter is cooked. Gently scraping around the circumference of each ball with a pick is another useful trick for removing takoyaki from the mold.
5. If you’re using an electric takoyaki maker, I recommend turning the heat on and off to maintain a lower cooking temperature to prevent the coconut oil from smoking.
6. Each hole won’t always heat up to the exact same temperature so you may want to switch around the takoyaki once they’re in ball shape so they brown evenly.
7. The filling is the tricky part. At first, I wouldn’t be too concerned about making Instagram-perfect balls. I rather have ugly takoyaki with too much filling than perfectly shaped takoyaki with not enough filling that taste bland and dry.
A general rule for getting your takoyaki to turn out right: Fail your way to success! You can always eat your mistakes in the kitchen. 😉
Before you can recreate this recipe in your kitchen…
First, where to buy a takoyaki maker
In Japan, you can buy electric takoyaki makers at any of the big, nation-wide electronic store chains like Yamada Denki or Bic Camera. For more options, you could also have a look at department stores, big variety/home stores like Don Quixote or Tokyu Hands, or cookware stores like you’d find in Kappabashi, Tokyo’s “Kitchen Street.”
Or you can be like me, and borrow a takoyaki maker from my girlfriend’s family! From my experience, I get the impression that pretty much every Japanese family have their own takoyaki maker at home.
Note about electric takoyaki makers: I’m using the 18-hole Yamazen electric takoyaki maker, which heats up fast and the temperature isn’t adjustable. Cooking with coconut oil at high temps is not good. The chains of amino acids in coconut oil break down under high heat = oxidation. As a solution, I turn the heat on and off, on and off.
I considered purchasing a cast-iron pan to use on my stove so I could adjust the heat. Thankfully, I found one used in good condition at a recycle shop for 100 yen (plus some elbow grease and sodium bicarbonate cleaner).
The recipe– how to make the healthy takoyaki!