When Takeo Shibatani visited the United States from Japan over a decade ago, he had his heart set on two things: surfing and opening a business. His dreams have since become a reality, and along the way, he unexpectedly also became a takoyaki master. For the uninitiated, takoyaki are Japanese octopus-filled battered balls—crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside—that are grilled on dimpled pans.
Even though the 39-year-old chef and owner launched Takoyaki Tanota in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo just last year, Shibatani has been steadily growing his takoyaki empire ever since he first rode those Pacific waves. He has spent the greater part of the decade perfecting his recipes and educating the masses stateside on what these doughy spheres are exactly.
In its most traditional form, a handful of these piping hot dumplings are covered with zigzags of Kewpie mayonnaise and sweet takoyaki sauce, a shower of aonori (dried green seaweed), and dancing katsuobushi (bonito flakes). At Takoyaki Tanota, Shibatani offers a half dozen other iterations, including ones covered in a ponzu sauce, a mentaiko (spicy cod caviar) sauce, and parmesan with truffle salt.
A relatively recent creation in Japan’s history, takoyaki didn’t appear on the Osaka food scene until 1935 when Tomekichi Endo dreamt up his culinary hit. However, it took quite some time for the dish to leave the Kansai region of Japan. Shibatani says it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the snack started having more of a presence in Tokyo. He credits its spread in popularity to Japanese takoyaki chain, Gindaco, which has nearly 500 locations internationally, including one in Southern California.
Shibatani points out that while the Gindaco style is very crispy on the outside, it’s not the way he grew up eating them in Osaka. The takoyaki he favors is more grilled than crispy. (It makes sense, seeing as “takoyaki” translates simply to “grilled octopus.”) There’s also this element of creaminess in the center.
“So for me, the perfect takoyaki is fluffy on the outside and the inside melts in your mouth,”
While Shibatani has slightly adjusted his recipe for American tastes, he’s still so focused on replicating that same level of creaminess that it doesn’t faze him that customers occasionally will complain that they think his food is undercooked. It’s not, he assures them. The center’s silkiness is done by design and it requires extra culinary skills to get those particular textures and flavors.
There’s a lot that goes into Shibatani’s takoyaki. When his mentors at Abeno taught him their coveted recipe, he found that when he tried to recreate it in the U.S., he had to tweak it.
“It’s because the water here is different, the chickens are different, the vegetables are different— [everything is] different. And I couldn’t import the flour here, too,”
Shibatani explains, adding that he had to develop his own takoyaki flour.
Takoyaki batter is traditionally made with fish stock, but Shibatani adds chicken stock—one that he boils for five or six hours—into the mix. While other takoyaki purveyors will add MSG into their batter, Shibatani doesn’t as an homage to his mentors’ methods. In order to get that depth of flavor without the additive, he boils chicken bones with 10 kinds of fruits and vegetables for his broth.
As for getting that gooey center, Shibatani had to figure out how to balance the right amount of water, broth, flour, and egg. He says he has to use less flour to achieve this, but it also means that it’s “very, very difficult to flip the takoyaki” so that the outside will still be crisp. He has to modify the flour to give the batter more texture and needs to flip the takoyaki constantly for about 10 to 15 minutes on the grill pans.
Prior to Shibatani’s takoyaki journey, he had spent five years working at a chain restaurant in Japan. He started off cooking there, but by the end was managing 10 locations. When he decided to quit his job at the age of 27, he left for the U.S. to surf. His soon-to-be mentor at Abeno, who also happened to be his surfing buddy back home, asked him about the takoyaki footprint stateside. When Shibatani told him it was pretty much nonexistent, his friend suggested he start a takoyaki business.
Shibatani first launched a takoyaki food truck in L.A. in 2009, on the heels of Kogi BBQ’s success in galvanizing a food truck phenomenon in the city. It was through his food truck and working at festivals that Shibatani began to spread the gospel about takoyaki. However, as many found the food truck business to be a tough one, so did Shibatani, and he decided to sling his takoyaki as frozen appetizers that he sold to ramen shops around the country. It’s been a booming business for him.
In March 2018, he opened his first brick-and-mortar Takoyaki Tanota location on 1st Street in Little Tokyo. To this day, Shibatani is still adjusting his takoyaki recipe ever so slightly, with input from customers and friends. Like everything else, it’s all about balance.
6537 Hedding St, Los Angeles, CA 90045
Hungry for something else? Discover other delicious eats in your area, ready to be ordered.
Looking for more content? Read up on Food Trends to Expect in 2020!
Images by Various | Editing by Kristen Reames