Fish Ice Cream is the Latest Dessert Craze to Hit America

It’s much better than it sounds. Fish ice cream is the next in a long line of Japanese imports to the US dessert scene.

Fish ice cream is just the latest in the trend of crazy Japanese desserts that has been imported across the Pacific Ocean. Contrary to what the name might imply, these are not fish flavored frozen desserts. Your taste buds are still safe. Known as taiyaki, they are a fish shaped cake made from waffle batter which is filled with delicious ice cream. The flavors range from traditional ones like vanilla and strawberry, all the way to more Japanese influence concoctions like matcha green tea or Hokkaido milk ice cream. Taiyaki has swept the nation via Instagram and other social media sites. After all, what better food to post online than a cute fish shaped dessert?

Taiyaki themselves have roots that date back long before the latest ice cream trend. These fish shaped cakes have been a popular snack food for many years in Japan and Korea. There are usually filled with a sweet red bean paste, but can also be found with savory fillings such as sausage and cheese. The batter is made using regular waffle batter, before being poured into a fish-shaped mold. The result is a golden brown fish shaped cone which is crunchy on the outside while remaining soft and chewy on the inside. The dessert is especially popular at night markets and local festivals during Japan’s cold winter months. Although now, you can even buy pre-packaged ones in Japanese supermarkets if you can’t get to a local night market.

In the past year, there have been multiple restaurants that have appeared in the States that serve these unique taiyaki ice creams. From San Francisco to New York, dessert fans on both coasts have been going crazy for these unique creations. Uji Time bakery in Berkeley, California is one of the most popular spots on the West Coast. Making just 15 fish ice creams a day has caused the store to stir up local interest and regularly has lines that go around the block. With such a limited supply, patrons rush to the store before opening in the hope to catch one of these adorable treats. 

The Flavours range from matcha, to black sesame and even a soft serve tofu flavour. Uji Time takes things up a notch by adding in red bean paste or sweet custard in the fish’s tail. The creation is a labour intensive process and each cone has to be handcrafted one by one. The entire process takes 30 minutes from start to finish, which explains the extremely limited daily supply. You’ll have to get here early if you want one of these delicious desserts.

Over on the East Coast, Taiyaki NYC has been serving New York diners with the dessert for almost just over a month but has already caused a large amount of excitement. The owner Jimmy Chen first discovered the dessert while on vacation in Japan. It was love at first bite and he decided to bring the creation to America. With a fun décor and a menu that contains many fish themed puns, it’s easy to see why this spot has become so popular with local food fanatics. Taiyaki NYC even goes as far as serving blended multi-flavour ice cream within the fish shaped cones. The black sesame and matcha blend is a beautiful mosaic of dark gray and green colors. It’s not just a pretty face either, the taste is sublime, and definitely stands up to the authentic Japanese recipe. There is also a range of toppings, ranging from wafers, fresh strawberries and sprinkles, all the way to sticks of mocha (a Japanese glutinous rice cake). 

Unlike their San Francisco brethren, Taiyaki NYC serves more than 15 ice creams a day, which can only be a good thing for local diners and Instagrammers. They opened with a bang and some great buy one get one free offers. They compounded this initial success by encouraging patrons to post their photos online using a designated hashtag. Taiyaki NYC has since seen its business increase hugely. It’s a great example of how to market yourselves using social media. Even a month after opening, there are still long lines down the street during peak times.

Another New York City-based store is Ice & Pan which is located in Flushing. Ice & Pan’s cones are slightly different as their line the entire cone with a red bean or custard filling before adding the thick soft serve ice cream. Their signature ice cream flavors are matcha served with fresh strawberries, Hokkaido milk which is topped with mango and a black sesame flavor. Other fun toppings include caramel popcorn, chocolate-covered pretzels and fresh fruit. If you’re feeling really Japanese, then why not add a Pocky straw, another of one Japan’s favorite snacks.

The oldest of America’s Taiyaki shops, and one that pre-dates the current craze is Otafuku in the East Village. Otafuku doesn’t just specialize in taiyaki, in fact, they also serve many Japanese favorites such as okonomiyaki, which is a savory filled pancake. Their taiyaki is a classic recipe that only features the red bean filling in the base (or tail) of the fish. The presentation isn’t as pretty as some of their competitors, and they don’t have their own hashtag, but their Taiyaki’s are still bursting with flavors and definitely worth trying if you’re down this way.

It’s too early to tell if Taiyaki is just a fall fad that’s capitalized on its cute shape and strong Instagramability. Or will it stand the test of time and join the list of great Asian dessert imports? With more stores opening, it looks like the former may be the case. One thing is for certain, if the lines don’t die down then fish ice cream looks like it’s going to swim more than sink.

Steven Wongprimary