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Bang your gong for dorayaki, Doraemon’s favorite snack

by Makiko Itoh

Traditional Japanese confections, or wagashi, can take a little getting used to for Western palates: The sticky-gooey texture of mochi (pounded rice) and the sweet an (bean paste) filling that are often used are quite different from most European-style cakes and cookies. But one snack that may suit the wagashi beginner is dorayaki.

A dorayaki is a palm-size treat comprising a sweet filling sandwiched between two round cakes that are similar to American pancakes.

Out of favor for some years like all wagashi, dorayaki have become quite trendy again as part of an overall wave of nostalgia for foods from the Showa Era (1926-1989). Manga and anime fans may know it best as the favorite snack of Doraemon, the blue robotic cat with the magical pocket.

The name “dorayaki” comes from the Japanese word for “gong”: dora. This is usually believed to be simply due to its resemblance to the circular metal percussive disk, albeit in miniature. (The yaki part of the name means “cooked on dry heat.”) But there is another, more romantic theory for its origin that involves a legendary hero called Saito no Musashibo Benkei, sidekick of Minamoto no Yoshitsune.

The story goes that once when he was seriously injured, Benkei was taken care of by an elderly couple who served him a little round cake cooked on the surface of a gong, thus creating the first dorayaki.

Although the origins of the dorayaki are believed to be ancient, it only took its current form in the early part of the 20th century. During the Edo Period (1603-1867) a dorayaki was a folded-up cake, like an omelette or pasty rather than a round sandwich, and the dough was much thinner.

It was first made as a sandwich using fluffy cakelike pancakes in 1914 by a confectionery in Ueno, Tokyo, called Usagiya (Rabbit House), whose owner took the idea from another confection that has its roots in Europe, the kasutera or castella cake. Like kasutera, the batter used to make a dorayaki pancake has some very Japanese ingredients in it, such as mirin (sweet rice wine) and even a touch of soy sauce. The main sweetening ingredient is usually honey, although sugar is used sometimes too.

While the usual dorayaki filling is tsubu-an (sweetened and mashed adzuki bean), in recent years all kinds of different fillings have become popular. One of these alternatives is called a nama (fresh or raw) dorayaki, referring to the use of fresh cream — in this case, whipped cream with some tsubu-an mixed in. Other fillings include chocolate cream, sweet potato cream and chestnut cream — the type that comes on top of a Mont Blanc cake, another only-in-Japan confection.

Making your own dorayaki with the filling of your choice is quite easy, especially if you use one of the instant pancake mixes that are so popular in Japan. Just add a couple of tablespoons of honey, a tablespoon of mirin and a drop of soy sauce to the batter. Cook on a nonstick surface such as an electric griddle, and fill when cooked with any sweet, spreadable filling. My favorite is Nutella with sliced strawberries, for an intriguing East-meets-West snack.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.