THIS IS NOT how it usually works, but watching Marie Kondo helped me buy a bulky, all-new kitchen tool and add some ingredients to my shopping list.
Let me explain: A few years back, my middle kid’s Japanese teacher assigned the sixth-grade class some cultural studies for homework. Kondo’s hit decluttering show, based on her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” sparked more stress than joy among some members of my household — specifically the youngest, who refuses to give up a single shabby stuffed animal or outgrown picture book.
Luckily, the homework list included a more attractive option: Eat taiyaki! Off we went to BeanFish, a Seattle food truck (and, since January, a storefront in Seattle’s Uwajimaya food court) selling the adorable snacks. Ubiquitous in Japan but less common here, taiyaki are fish-shaped stuffed waffles, usually filled with red bean paste or custard.
BeanFish took the concept far beyond the norm, adding delightfully gonzo savory options along with super-creative sweet ones. As owner Brady Woo puts it, “I created something that I found customers didn’t know they couldn’t live without.”
Woo fell into the world of taiyaki when living in Japan with his wife, who had family ties there. He didn’t speak the language fluently, and his previous jobs — Danish furniture franchise owner and photographer — weren’t promising options for a noncitizen. Walking around Osaka, “I begged a Japanese grandmother to help her in her small taiyaki shop,” he says. It sparked — if not joy — a lot of creative energy.
“The whole time I was making taiyaki for her, I thought, ‘Wow; the taiyaki is really just a vehicle for flavor.’ ”
Returning to Seattle, Woo set up a taiyaki tent for Lunar New Year in the Chinatown International District. That led to gigs at the Fremont Sunday Market and eventually the mobile food truck, which he headlined as the nation’s first taiyaki truck.
Taking his feet off the creative brakes, Woo created a menu that lets loose with untraditional hits, like Harajuku Chic, combining Fruity Pebbles cereal and a jumbo marshmallow filling (condensed milk served on the side), and a breakfast-y taiyaki loaded with bacon, egg, cheese, tater tots and green onion.
Woo grew up in Seattle, and some family members had restaurant experience, but, “I think for that generation, owning a restaurant, for Asian Americans, that was truly more a function of survival than anything.” He hoped to do it instead from a place of creativity and inspiration.
In Japan, taiyaki (the name comes from the sea bream fish) are a symbol of luck and prosperity, but it took a while here to realize that promise. While the truck eventually drew loyal fans and long lines, permitting laws in Seattle make it tough to operate a long- enough shift for a food truck to be profitable, Woo says. Then came COVID. Labor shortages remain a crushing challenge.
Broadening his footprint to a retail store brought unique complications, too. The truck’s taiyaki grills ran on propane, which is not an option indoors. But clearing the unusual imported indoor grills with city inspectors was “like brain surgery,” he says.
“I think (the inspector) was there three times as we all worked through changing every single component and every single wire to U.S. standards.”
Meanwhile, sticking close to home, my family had discovered one other thing: When you can’t find a place to buy fresh-made taiyaki (other, more traditional, outlets do exist, including Boo Han Market in Edmonds and Chamei Matcha in Bellevue), you can make your own.
Fish-shaped waffles, after all, just call for a fish-shaped waffle-maker, which sounded to us like the perfect holiday gift for the kids. Electric stand-alone taiyaki griddles exist, but we went for a cast-iron mold that would work on a grill or gas stove. Traditional red bean paste is easy to make by cooking dried red beans, water and sugar, although canned versions work fine, too. Drizzling waffle batter into the molds and adding a bit of filling gave us messier and less-creative taiyaki than those at BeanFish, but they’re still supremely fun to make and eat.
BeanFish’s triple-stuffed creations and fast pace actually make getting it right more complex than with a home version. Traditional taiyaki can be filled slowly and cooked at a lower temperature, Woo says, but, “There’s a lot of thought and speed that’s required for what we do. Once the batter drops, we have maybe two minutes to put all the fillings in the fish that are in the column of six” (in the BeanFish molds). He’s all for experimenting, though — “That’s how BeanFish came to be! Do it! Have fun with it.”
And if you invent a taiyaki filling you really love, he says, let him know, because there’s another tradition he carries on at the restaurant: “If we try it and it works well, we’ll add it to the menu and name it after you.”
Meanwhile, we’ll try to make good use of the hefty cast-iron mold in our kitchen cabinets along with a stock of adzuki beans and canned paste. The child who started this all is in high school now. The youngest, now in sixth grade, naturally had no question that she’d also study Japanese as she entered Robert Eagle Staff Middle School — she still isn’t much for tidying up, but she knows all about the life-changing magic of a good teacher and good food.
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