osaka

Kansai's Foodie Mecca: often a bargain

Foodie hotspots: Osaka city: Dotombori, Sennichimae, Umeda, Shin-Umeda Shokudogai, Namba, Kuromon Ichiba market, Fukushima, Shinsaibashi, Janjan Yokocho Alley, Shinsekai.

 

Foodies Look Out For: Takoyaki octopus balls; Okonomiyaki; Udonsuki hotpot; Hamo pike conger dishes; Sembajiru; Ramen; Sushi; Fugu blowfish; Kushikatsu.

 

The Basics: Osaka is the name given to both the Prefecture and its largest city, where all the serious foodie action takes place. There's no official 'city center' in the huge metropolitan district, but the main transport hubs of Umeda/Osaka JR and Namba are practically cities unto themselves. The former is often called 'Kita' (North) and the latter, including Shinsaibashi and Dotombori, 'Minami' (South). The shinkansen bullet train station is at Shin-Osaka, a 4 minute train or subway ride from the Umeda/Osaka JR terminal.

 

Foodies Go Osaka: Japan’s second-largest city is as food-crazed as they come. Osaka’s mercantile and sea-going heritage has given it a rough-and-tough, no-nonsense image, and its industrious citizens have a reputation for partying as hard as they work. The saying goes that while Kyotoites will happily waste their fortunes on fine kimono, and Tokyoites and Kobe-dwellers on shoes, the Osakans have only one way to squander their riches - on food. There’s even a word for bankrupting oneself through sheer gluttony: kuidaore.

The city’s love of good food is undeniable, from the entertainment districts of Umeda in the north to Shinsaibashi and Namba in the south. However, real foodie heaven is Namba’s gourmet street, Dotombori’s fame and fortune began with the success of its kabuki theatres, but soon the area began to teem with restaurants to service the Osaka revellers’ culinary needs.

The entertainment connection remains strong even today, with the Yoshimoto manzai stand-up comedy television studios situated in the very heart of Sennichimae. Kuromon-ichiba market, nearby, still provides the raw materials for the countless restaurants that line the Dotombori-gawa canal. Crab-cuisine specialists Kani Doraku and the ramen shop Kinryu, with its fiery kimchee toppings and shoyu and pork-broth base, have become nationally famous, yet for most Japanese Osaka is synonymous with two dishes: takoyaki and okonomiyaki.

It says something about Osaka’s lack of pretension, when one of its best-known epicurean delights is ‘octopus balls’. Takoyaki are tiny, spherical, wheat flour pancakes to which diced octopus, shredded cabbage and other vegetables are added. They are often grilled in front of the customer at yatai, and come topped with katsuobushi and a ‘secret’ sauce of the owner’s invention. They are cheap, filling, fattening and seem to remain intact in one’s stomach for several days following consumption. Needless to say this does nothing to lessen their popularity, not least for a midnight stop-off between izakaya and karaoke-den. Dotombori’s Otako store is nationally renowned.

Okonomiyaki is perennially and inaccurately translated as ‘a kind of Japanese pizza’. It is nothing of the sort. It’s a discus-sized savoury pancake of wheat-flour, egg and water topped with your konomi – ‘whatever takes your fancy’. Usually this means meat, squid, vegetables and finely chopped cabbage. Restaurant proprietors cook it in front of you on a flat hotplate and serve it with sweet brown sauce or mayonnaise, often garnished with dried and powdered aonori laver seaweed, or katsuobushi flakes that ‘dance’ as they heat up. Osakans can’t get enough of stuff, yet few know or at least care to admit that it was almost certainly invented in either Kyoto or Tokyo.

As far back as the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the masters of Kyoto’s chakaiseki were rustling up a batter of flour and water mixed with heat-gluten, which they grilled on a hotplate, brushed with miso, and the rolled up like a crepe. If this wasn’t the proto-okonomiyaki, the Tokyo’s 18th-century monjayaki, or the city’s late 19th-century dondonyaki, can almost certainly lay claim to the title.

The latter came to Osaka from Tokyo after WWII, and proved an immediate hit. The Osaka gourmands increased the variety of ingredients, added the sweet topping sauce and began serving it at a counter where the guest could sit and watch the okonomiyaki being made. This cheery, informal style of serving an inexpensive, tasty meal suited the Osakans to a tee, and the rest is, as they say, octopus history. Kiji Honten in Umeda, and Ajinoya in Nanba are two of Osaka's best okonomiyaki-ya.

Contrary to the commonly held belief, Osaka cuisine is not all balls and mistranslated pizza. An abundance of quality ingredients from Osaka Bay and the Seto Naikai Inland Sea, and the fertile plains surrounding the city, have meant that a distinctly Osaka cuisine has evolved.

As its heart is the light-coloured but salty usukuchi-shoyu soy sauce, often combined with konbu-dashi kelp stock, a mix that so characterises the Osaka taste. Sembajiru mackerel soup; udonsuki seafood and vegetables served with udon white noodles in a delicate light broth (Mimiu Honten in Honmachi is famous for the dish); hamo pike-conger either served as teriyaki, or with sour plum as the exquisite hamo no bainiku-ae; odamakimushi the savory custard chawanmushi, but containing boiled udon; hansuke-nabe eel-head soup; and tai no hako-zushi pressed sea bream sushi are all bona-fide Osaka delicacies. Fugu blowfish is also extremely popular.

Osaka boasts two more culinary claims to fame, thanks to its favourite sons Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who opened the nation’s first conveyor-belt restaurant, Genroku-zushi, in Higashi-Osaka in the 1950s, and Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant ramen.

 

The Osaka Budget Gourmet

Osaka's favorite cheap food fix, besides takoyaki and okonomiyaki, is kushikatsu, deep-fried meat or vegetables served on a skewer. You dip these into a brown Worcestershire-type sauce. There is a strict rule here that you may only dip the once. Matsuba Honten in the Shin-Umeda Shokudogai inside Umeda Station is one of the city's longest running kushikatsu specialists. The Shokudogai is a warren of inexpensive izakaya and restaurants all offering decent fare at decent prices. It has been going since 1950. For inexpensive sushi, kushikatsu, ikayaki, oden and other budget treats head to the old skool 'gourmet' hangout of Janjan Yokocho Alley in Shinsekai. This area provided inspiration for some of the scenes in Blade Runner.

 

The Ramen Professor Recommends: Maruoka Shoten in the arcade beside Kyobashi JR station serves up great chuka soba noodles at just ¥650 a pop. It only seats six people, so can get rather cozy. The city's finest shio ramen is served at Yosuko in the Umeda district. It's next to the Doyamacho traffic signal, in the basement of the Fukiya Building, 3 minutes walk east of Umeda station. Currently very popular is Menya Jouroku, which serves 'East Osaka Takaida-style' chuka soba at its location across the street from Namba Sennichimae Koen park. Expect to wait in line for up to two hours (we're not kidding). If you like Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, Tenjiki near to Kami-Shinjo station  is a good bet. They've been making it for 17 years. Tokkari Honten, a short stroll from Shojaku station on the Hankyu Kyoto line does excellent 'Asahikawa-style' shoyu, shio and miso ramen.

 

FGL Favorite Tipple: Osaka prefecture has long been a sake-making centre, most notably Ikeda, which today still produces the excellent Seishu Goshun and Midoriichi varieties. The Yao suburb’s Choryu is also well received. Akishika Shuzo out in rural Nose (pronounced No-seh, by the way) has been making great sake since 1886. Hiroaki Oku, its owner, is one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. When he found a pair of nightingales nesting in his rice paddy, he harvested around them. How cool is that?

 

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John F. Ashburne

John F. Ashburne

Editor-in-Chief Foodies Go Local