New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. People built New York City’s culture by sharing their traditions, and it was inevitable that something new would be born from this place. One of the children of New York’s culture is Taiyaki NYC.
Taiyaki NYC first opened its doors in 2016 with its iconic fish-shaped ice cream cones called “taiyaki,” named and shaped after “Tai,” the Japanese word for red sea bream. Ice cream flavors range from the classic vanilla and chocolate to the Japanese-inspired matcha and Hojicha. Nested into their taiyaki cones and sprinkled with assorted toppings, this ice cream treat is easily one worth a trip to New York City.
And what a trip it was.
While dropping me off at the NJ Transit, my mother reminded me once more that she was worried about me going to New York City alone. With recent attacks against the Asian-American community, she was anxious about my safety. She told me not to wear headphones. Don’t look at your phone too much. Stick to busy streets. I promised her that I would be fine, keep an eye out, and get home safe.
After hopping out of Penn Station, I decided to walk down to Taiyaki in NYC. How hard could it be? Overconfident in myself and wearing the worst possible shoes, I walked 10 minutes in the wrong direction before realizing my mistake. One hour later, I was still standing and trying to ignore the stabbing sensation in my feet.
I ordered the vanilla ice cream with chocolate drizzle, crushed Oreos, and a wafer stick. The taiyaki waffle cone was warm and soft, like a fish-shaped pillow for the swirl of ice cream dolloped on top. With barely a lick of the velvety vanilla, I held in the temptation to order another flavor: strawberry and mango swirl with a cocktail umbrella. Maybe next time.
A Tasty History of Taiyaki
But there’s much more to this sweet fish-shaped treat than meets the eye.
Taiyaki NYC’s co-founder Jimmy Chen talked about the symbolism behind taiyaki.
“This tai-shaped pastry has been around so long in Japanese culture,” said Chen. “People who get married or have celebrations hang tai pictures in their homes because it’s a symbol of good luck and good gesture.”
Taiyaki has over 100 years of history in Japan, and the symbolism of tai stretches much further than that. The origins of taiyaki can be traced to Naniwaya Sohonten, a shop still in operation today since 1909. The story goes that the store’s owner, Seijiro Kobe, first invented taiyaki as both a way for his store to stand out and share the symbolic fortune of the tai, an expensive fish, with the common people.
The historical significance of taiyaki is greatly emphasized through Taiyaki NYC.
This taiyaki ice cream that I held in my hand was more than just a genius combination. On second thought, it was this incredible collision of worlds, a reflection of New York City’s culture. With the symbolic taiyaki combined with the universally-loved flavors of ice cream, Taiyaki NYC seems to carry on the legacy of Kobe, sharing this symbol of luck and happiness with the rest of New York City.
“We just have so much to share,” said Chen. “Just so much love to spread, and I can’t wait for us to get back to that.”
Taiyaki NYC: More than Ice Cream
As I enjoyed my ice cream, I couldn’t help but think about the long road that led to Taiyaki NYC and its success. While the team behind Taiyaki NYC did an incredible job of sharing Japanese culture in their exciting way, it seems just as crucial that people embraced and welcomed taiyaki ice cream. While cultures have come together in film and music, there isn’t anything quite as universal as food.
“I think food is a tremendous unifier,” said Chen. “Anyone can have these cones. Anyone of all races, of any color, can share this. It’s a great unifying dessert.”
But at times, it’s hard to think about unification. The news across the United States has brought attention to the rise in anti-Asian sentiments. It seems to be in direct conflict with everything businesses like Taiyaki NYC stand for. The division in our communities seems to cut deeper each day.
Stop APPI Hate, a nonprofit organization, recorded nearly 3,800 hate incidents against Asian Americans since March 2020, and these incidents continue. Asian-Americans, especially against the elderly, have faced increasing violent attacks, harassment, and racist insults during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time where people needed to stand together, we’ve continued to see the fractures in our communities.
It was comforting to know that my mother was worried about my safety, but I couldn’t help but share her fears. I’d heard the news stories. I’d watched the videos. I thought about what my mother would do if anything happened.
Remember to Love
Still holding onto my taiyaki ice cream, I smiled. It’s hard to stay sad while eating ice cream. It’s even tougher when that ice cream is beautifully placed on top of a Japanese fish waffle filled with custard.
With my last bites, I thought to myself one more time about how all this was possible. There are still people out there willing to share their cultures with others. There are still people willing to accept them. Looking down, I was reminded of what taiyaki represented. Good luck. Good gesture.
As Taiyaki NYC continues to share its delicious message, Chen had some wonderful last words to say:
“Hold your friends, hold your elders, grab an ice cream, and let’s get through this together.”