Ink on my Apron: Takoyaki
Unlike lesser mortals who may have made their peace with having to wait until a future trip to Japan was on the cards or worse still, reconcile themselves to the idea of never eating takoyaki again, Ahmed decided to take matters into his own hands and pander to his own cravings. This is a sentiment that resonates with the tenacious foodie in me. After all, if you can’t find it, why not fix it yourself.
The best food stories usually require a rite of passage and overcoming a fair share of trials and tribulations to stumble across a hidden gem that may not otherwise have crossed your path. By this measure, Ahmed Tahnoon’s life has definitely come full circle – a fact that the 31-year-old Emirati electronics engineer and restaurateur realised just a few months ago when he chanced upon a social media post he had shared from his first trip to Japan in 2014. Ahmed had uploaded a picture of himself sampling a fried street treat in Osaka and had wrongly captioned it as Dango, a popular snack that he thought he recognised from anime. As fate would have it, this spherical savoury dumpling that actually goes by the name takoyaki has now become his bread and butter, so to speak, and it was the elusive pursuit of the same in Dubai that proved to be the catalyst for launching his standalone restaurant Spheerz.
While Ahmed’s journey may have been fraught with obstacles, a few lucky others such as myself are lucky tohave our first brush with the almost mythical unicorn of a snack on Dubai’s culinary landscape at his pop-up kiosk in Global Village. My trips to the seasonal theme park featuring traditional food and handicrafts from more than 75 countries have become a bit of an annual pilgrimage and every year I have to credit these expeditions for some great food discoveries. If I were to chronicle all the great revelations that I owe to Global Village the list would be endless but marked by some standouts such as honest-to-goodness Pakistani kebabs and parathas at Bundoo Khan, lobster rolls that leave behind a tell-tale buttery trail on your lips, Turkish baked potatoes stuffed to bursting point, Emirati deep-fried lugeimat dipped in an indulgent sticky date syrup and chimney cakes served straight from the oven with a “Watch out, it’s hot!” disclaimer that falls upon deaf ears and all-too-eager fingers.
I watch as Ahmed fills the pan with the pre-prepared takoyaki batter.
Good food, we both seem to understand, has the ability to stop you in your tracks and as in Ahmed’s case, take over your life for a year or two. When asked about his initial reaction to takoyaki, Ahmed says, quite simply, that he loved it instantly and found himself wondering how he had never tried it before. It was this insatiable appetite for takoyaki that consumed him on his return to Dubai and compelled him to look in vain for restaurants that could give him his fix. While Dubai is widely acknowledged as a global culinary hotspot, Ahmed was amazed to find that he couldn’t come across a single place that served the Japanese favourite. Unlike lesser mortals who may have made their peace with having to wait until a future trip to Japan was on the cards or worse still, reconcile themselves to the idea of never eating takoyaki again, Ahmed decided to take matters into his own hands and pander to his own cravings. This is a sentiment that resonates with the tenacious foodie in me. After all, if you can’t find it, why not fix it yourself.
Ahmed candidly admits that his forays in the kitchen had thus far been limited to cooking Indomie instant noodles but his limited expertise never stood in the way of his almost poetic vision of attaining a perfect takoyaki, which nailed that hard-to-attain balance of being crisp on the outside but moist on the inside. And that is exactly what he did. So keen was he on replicating the flavours that had won him over in Osaka that he bought himself an electrical takoyaki kit and hard-to-procure ingredients such as takoyaki flour, dashi powder, and katsuobushi (shaved dried fish flakes) off an online website. And so armed with this modest starter kit and a generous reservoir of ambition and patience, Ahmed began dabbling with making takoyaki at home – a process that took him close to two years to perfect.
I fill each sphere with a piece of octopus.
Part of takoyaki’s charm lies in the theatrical aspect of its preparation - a fact I am no stranger to, seeing as this is what initially lured to me the Spheerz pop-up at Global Village. The pre-prepared batter is poured into customized pans along with a dollop of octopus, green onions, and pickled red ginger. When they’re half done, they’re flipped - before a wondrous audience - by which point they acquire a spherical shape. When the takoyaki has achieved a beautiful golden colour, it’s served with a choice of sauce and a dusting of katsuobushi. Ahmed is quick to admit that this element of entertainment was lost on him when he took his first tentative steps to making takoyaki in his own kitchen. The struggle, as they say, was real.
My first attempt at flipping - not quite perfect.
While his initial attempts were edible, they didn’t have the attributes he’d fallen in love with in Osaka and it took him countless tries and another visit to Japan to hone his technique. The only reassuring factor throughout was the fact that everyone who he encouraged to try it during this testing phase seemed to love it as much as he did.
So is Japanese cuisine one that appeals to Emirati tastebuds? Ahmed admits that it does take a while for people to get used to the “rawness” and some exhibit a slight reluctance when it comes to things such as octopus which is the star ingredient of the original takoyaki. Having said that, he realises that while authenticity is key it is just as important to cater to the local market and this has led him to conceive variations using chicken and shrimp and even a vegetarian option that uses miso instead of dashi and fried onions instead of the katsuobushi, which is his own invention. He was also keen to showcase the fact that Japanese food encompasses so much more than just raw ingredients.
Food still has the ability to excite Ahmed and this, you realise, has to be a non-negotiable when it comes to working in the F&B industry. He travels often to Japan and is excited to show me a new cooking technique he’s been exposed to on his most recent trip, where ingredients of choice are cooked live at your table - in a small leaf that is smeared with miso paste - over a small burner. He also reveals his moment of epiphany on this holiday when he realised that he wanted to do something with a variety of fish eggs indigenous to the UAE known as hobool but prepared in a Japanese manner. Matcha takoyaki—filled and topped with a white chocolate sauce—is another signature creation.
Ahmed’s story is one that demonstrates how unfamiliar flavours need no specific palate, just an open mind and a willingness to try things that are outside your comfort zone - after all this is the same man who was apprehensively initiated as a sixteen-year-old into the world of Dubai’s then-nascent Japanese food scene at a restaurant called Sushi Sushi. It’s also hard not to admire the perseverance of a person who has had no formal training in Japanese cuisine but has managed to embody the very essence of the word homegrown with a concept and recipe that was, put quite simply, grown in his house and taught hands-on to the staff who now man his pop-up kiosk and restaurant.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at inkonmyapron.com.
All photographs except the header image courtesy of Jehan Nizar