The role anime and manga have played in popularizing Japanese cuisine among the masses in the last couple of decades can hardly be overstated. Sure, the expanding fame of foods like ramen, sushi, and mochi doesn’t lie solely on animators’ shoulders. Still, for many of the 2000’s kids, their first knowledge of Japanese food - and the desire to try it to be like their favorite characters - came from anime.
I wish I could back this up scientifically with results from a large-scale study, but alas, I’m unaware of one ever being conducted. I only have anecdotal tales of people around me whom I found through anime communities back in the mid-2000s. Anime was considered kiddy entertainment, and all my peers were so desperately trying to be adults that even if any of them were watching Naruto, they were doing so silently and sticking to anonymous online communities for discussions (same as I was).
But unless my surroundings were wildly misrepresentative of the anime community in those times, I can say that for most of us, Hayao Miyazaki movies, Sailor Moon, One Piece, and Naruto were the first introduction to colorful bento boxes, Sushi, Okayu, Yakiniku, Udon, and Ramen.
In other words, tell me you’re an old-school anime fan without telling me you’re an old-school anime fan: you’ve been craving ramen from the first moment you saw Naruto eat it (without even knowing what it was).
Fast forward 15 years into the future and anime is now mainstream, Japanese restaurants are easily found in most metropolitan areas, and the baby’s first encounter with sushi is just as likely to come from their parents as from another Japanese cartoon.
But there are more than a few staple Japanese foods that are still not well-known to the general public that otaku (anime and manga fans) go crazy for. Dango is one such food from anime, its popularity bolstered by Naruto earlier and Demon Slayer in recent years. Takoyaki, not so easily found outside Japan but frequently depicted in anime (One Piece, Natsume Yuujinchou, Assassination Classroom, Demon Slayer, Fruits Basket, the list goes on), is another.
But no specific anime or anime character has done as much to popularize a particular product as Doraemon. If you know what Dorayaki is, then it’s likely because of a blue earless cat. Even if you don’t really know anything about that blue earless cat.
What (or, Rather, Who) is Doraemon?
Doraemon is one of the most famous fictional characters in Japanese history. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. His influence has been so significant and consistent over the years that China and Pakistan have outright banned it. China out of fear of Doraemon being used as a tool for cultural invasion by Japan, and Pakistan out of perceived harmful impact on children. To put things in perspective, the Pakistani ban was enacted in 2019, 50 years after Doraemon’s creation.
Doraemon is one of the most recognizable characters to people who know a thing or two about anime. It’s the closest equivalent Japan has to Mickey Mouse. Sure, you may have never seen any actual cartoons with him, but the imagery is everywhere: on T-shirts and keychains, stationary like notebooks and stickers, in toy stores, on tableware, pillows, bed sheets, etc. You get into anime, and you absorb the knowledge about Doraemon through osmosis.
To truly put things in perspective, you just need to know that in 2008 Japanese Government appointed Doraemon as the “anime ambassador” to help promote Japanese animation in foreign countries. Since its creation in 1969, Doraemon’s popularity has only gone up.
So who is Doraemon?
Doraemon is a cute earless blue-white cat with a round red nose and a yellow bell around his neck. His backstory is far more complicated than such a simple character would indicate. Firstly, he’s a robot. Secondly, he’s a time-traveling robot from the future, sent by his 22nd-century owner to take care of the owner’s ancestor. The details of his backstory are not only convoluted but constantly get retconned, so most casual fans constantly get confused about which version of the story is canon.
None of that stumps him from moving a massive amount of merch from toys to mugs to stickers to the Japanese pastry called Dorayaki that owes most of its popularity outside Japan to its association with Doraemon.
Cool. What Does a Futuristic Robot Cat Has to do with Pancakes Exactly?
Dorayaki is Doraemon’s favorite food. This fact alone might not have mattered much if not for the intensity of Doraemon’s love for Dorayaki. If you think Naruto was obsessed with Ramen, think again. At least Ramen took a backseat when there was action happening and Naruto had to defeat the enemies. Sure, the anime reminds you how obsessed Naruto is every time the characters get to breathe between being badass, and we get a glimpse of their everyday life, but ramen is hardly a character in the anime.
Dorayaki, arguably, is.
Not only do we see Doraemon munching on Dorayaki every once in a while, oh no. Dorayaki has become a direct part of the action plot more than once in every media iteration of Doraemon. Mostly it’s a convenient plot device to put Doraemon in a tight situation to drive the narrative for the episode. Everybody’s well aware that Dorayaki is Doraemon’s weak spot and his enemies keep using it as bait for their traps. Poor Doraemon falls for it every time.
Not that it stops Doraemon’s obsession. Or his fans' obsession, for that matter. Dorayaki’s popularity seems to be only rising as the years pass by, and what I like to call “baby’s first Dorayaki experience” is often directly tied to Doraemon.
Doraemon’s imagery is actively used in Dorayaki marketing by various manufacturers. Convenience store-sold Dorayaki often sports Doraemon either on the packaging or on the pastry itself (or both).
Is Dorayaki the Same as Pancake?
It may come as a surprise, but while Dorayaki does indeed resemble a pancake, technically it isn’t. The pancake-like patties are actually thin Castella cake layers and not pancakes. But since it's not cake either, most still call it a pancake due to visual similarities. It's just easier.
So What is Dorayaki if Not a Pancake?
Dorayaki is a sweet pastry with a filling, neither strictly a pancake nor a cake. The top and bottom layers are intentionally made to look like pancakes but are, in fact, made with the same recipe as Castella cake: no fat or leavening agent is used, and the layers are airier but denser than pancakes like Imagawayaki or Taiyaki.
Classic Dorayaki filling is a sweetened Azuki red bean paste. It’s the one that Doraemon loves the most. But, as with most Japanese pastries and desserts with a filling, other flavors like whipped cream, vanilla custard, matcha custard, strawberry, and chocolate cream have become popular over the years. Other Doraemon characters add different seasonings to their Dorayakis, so they’re all legit as far as we’re concerned.
What Does Dorayaki Taste Like?
Dorayaki castella layers are subtly sweet, with quite a mellow flavor. The intensity of Dorayaki’s taste depends on the filling. Classic Anko or whipped cream-filled Dorayaki are on the less sweet side, though Anko filling can be pretty dense. Matcha Dorayaki has a mellow flavor with earthy notes and a touch of bitterness from the green tea. Custard or chocolate-filled Dorayaki are more robustly flavored, with more intense sweetness, but still not as sugary as we’re used to with American pastries.
Is Dorayaki Named After Doraemon?
No, no. Dorayaki was around long before Doraemon was ever created. It was created in 1914, to be exact. Its progenitor, the traditional Japanese Anko-filled pancake called Imagawayaki, has been around far longer: since the late 18th century.
Is Doraemon Named After Dorayaki, Then?
One would think so, but nope! Doraemon’s name comes from the Japanese phrase Dora Neko which translates to English as “Stray Cat.” However, it’s entirely possible that Dorayaki was chosen to be Doraemon’s favorite food precisely due to the similarities in the name. Talk about luck for Dorayaki bakers!
Where Does Dorayaki Come From?
We can track Dorayaki back to two traditional Japanese pastries: the Castella cake and Imagawayaki. If we’re being crude, we could describe Dorayaki as their combination. Still, to be fair, Dorayaki is mostly its own thing, even if it does have ties to both Castella and Imagawataki.
The Castella cake is arguably Japan’s first native cake. It was strongly influenced by Portuguese sponge cake pão de ló, brought to Nagasaki in the 16th century by the Portuguese missionaries. While the bakers took “Nanban confectionary” as an inspiration, they were evidently determined to create something uniquely Japanese, as Castella cake has very few similarities with the original Portuguese cake, aside from the main ingredients. Castella is airier, less sweet, and more moist due to the use of starchy syrup (originally Mizuame, made from malted glutinous rice, these days often substituted with corn starch syrup, honey, or a mix of both). During the Edo Period, it was considered a dessert for the elites since its ingredients (mostly sugar) were pricy due to Tokugawa Shogunate severely limiting overseas trade.
Imagawayaki is a tall and thick pancake stuffed with a sweetened thick paste made from Azuki red beans called Anko. Anko is a frequently used ingredient in Japanese desserts, with many Wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) using it one way or another. Various types of Mochi, like Daifuku, Yatsuhashi, Hanabira, Ohagi, etc., as well as Dango, Monaka, Zenzai, and Yokan, use Anko either as a filling or a sauce, so it’s not a surprise that whoever though to create a new type of dessert, stuck to Anko as one of the main ingredients.
The first version of Dorayaki (we’ll call it proto-Dorayaki for simplicity’s sake) is thought to be older than even Castella cake. It’s tied to the name of the legendary 12th-century Japanese warrior monk Saito Musashibo Benkei. According to the tale, once, an injured Benkei was sheltered by an elderly couple. The couple cooked a small round cake on the surface of the gong for Benkei, and thus the first Dorayaki was born. Another version of the tale states that Benkei left his gong with the couple (either as repayment for their kindness, or he simply forgot), and the couple used it to cook the cake after Benkei was already gone.
Either way, while Dorayaki, the name was already associated with some kind of pastry, might before either Castella or Imagawayaki, proto-Dorayaki had very little if anything at all to do with the currently popular pastry.
Despite both the Castella cake and Imagawayaki being quite famous during the Edo period, they didn’t intermingle until 1914. A baker at a Tokyo-based confectionery shop called Usagi-ya (Rabbit House) was the first to create what was dubbed “lazy person’s pancakes” (Mikasa) by sticking two thin castella cake layers together with a sweet red bean paste. Ever since then, Dorayaki has become one of the staple Japanese pastries, with Doraemon’s obsession catapulting it to worldwide fame.
Usagi-ya, by the way, is still standing today, and is still considered one of the best Dorayaki shops in the country.
How Long Does Dorayaki Keep?
The shelf life of commercially packaged Dorayaki differs between the manufacturers. Consult the packaging before consumption. Unopened Dorayaki should be safe to eat for 6 to 12 months, depending on the recipe and the stabilizers used by the manufacturer, if properly stored (in a cool, dark place, preferably in a refrigerator)
Once the Dorayaki package has been opened, it can last 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator. Wrap it in plastic wrap or aluminum foil to preserve the moisture content.
How to Properly Store Dorayaki to Maximize its Shelf Life:
Similar to Castella cake, Dorayaki can be frozen. Keep it in a hermetically sealed container or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap before freezing. It will prolong the shelf life of Dorayaki that’s been opened by approximately 2-3 months.