Strips of squid blister and curl on the hot plate while tightly packed skewers of chicken sizzle and spit over an open flame. Piping hot noodle soup, served in disposable plastic bowls, is noisily inhaled in a blur of chopsticks while freshly grilled fish shaped cakes are nibbled with care lest the custard inside escapes. Forget haute cuisine, this is Osaka, one of the best known foodie destinations in Japan and particularly renowned for unpretentious street food and casual dining.
Takoyaki, Osakan Street Food
At some street stalls you'll see a thick batter poured into hundreds of small, circular divots on a specially designed hotplate. A cube of octopus tentacle, complete with suckers, is dropped into the middle of each pool. A sprinkle of pickled ginger and spring onion add a splash of colour before each is adeptly poked and turned with a cocktail stick to form perfect lightly toasted spheres. Eating takoyaki fresh from the grill is, while tempting, much like eating a bite-sized ball of molten lava so it's wise to wait a few minutes first. The crispy shell gives way to a soft pulp with the firm chunk of octopus at the centre. Most of the flavour however comes from the toppings, usually tangy takoyaki sauce, creamy mayonnaise, powdered seaweed and bonito flakes. Takoyaki is the quintessential Osaka street food, usually found at stalls, particularly around the Dotonbori area. Having friends round for a takoyaki party is also good fun and inevitably variations on the theme arise. Substituting cheese is popular and gives a good vegetarian alternative to octopus.
Osaka Style Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is often translated as “as you like it pancakes”, a reference to the choice of toppings available. A basic batter, with the added secret ingredient of yam, is mixed with piles of crisp, shredded cabbage and your chosen topping and tipped onto a hot plate. Large transparent flakes of dried bonito are piled on, seeming to wave at you from the grill as they twist and writhe in the heat. As a finishing touch, excessive quantities of sweet okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise are dolloped on top turning this otherwise healthy dish into a dieter's nightmare. Dusting with aosako powdered seaweed is optional but you may see some older Japanese applying so much that it obscures the okonomiyaki beneath.
Tsuruhashi Fugetsu is a local chain where the okonomiyaki is prepared for you on the hot plate at your table. Their jaga-mochi-chizu option combines the powdery dryness of potato and the stringy mozzarella-like texture of rice cakes with some added cheese. If you prefer something a little spicier, the pork and kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage) is also a winning combination.
1. Making the Base
2. Topped with Bonito Flakes
3. Adding Mayo
4. The Finished Article
Just about anything can be skewered, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried for kushikatsu but staples include pork, shrimp and vegetables. From the crunchy succulence of lotus root to meaty shiitake mushrooms, there is kushikatsu to suit every taste. Particular highlights are boiled quail's eggs, much easier to eat than a full sized skewered egg, and cheese, which melts just enough to give that satisfying goo without dribbling out when you bite into it. Eaten hot and dipped in a large, communal vat of sauce, kushikatsu provides the perfect blend of salty sauce and crispy batter making it an ideal beer snack. Just remember the cardinal rule – no double dipping!
Kushikatsu originated in the Shinsekai area of Osaka where working men would stop to enjoy the cheap, filling skewers of meat. Ninety years later not much has changed. In the evening every kushikatsu restaurant will be packed with lively crowds enjoying post work skewers and drinks. If you relish the idea of frying your own, restaurants like Kushiya Monogatari offer all you can eat buffet style kushikatsu where you choose your favourites to fry at your table.
It's a firmly established fact in Japanese folklore that abura-age tofu is a fox's favourite food. These wrinkly pouches of deep fried tofu have a sweet bread-like texture and are the key ingredient in kitsune udon, literally fox noodles. The thick, chewy, udon noodles are immersed in a mild fish based stock and topped with this tofu. Spring onions and a thin flower-shaped slice of narutomaki, adorned with a pink spiral design, liven up this otherwise monochrome dish. Kitsune udon can be found in most noodle restaurants in Osaka.
Ask any Osakan and they'll tell you people from this city have a reputation for being funny. They'll likely cite the example of a comedian who stood outside busy stations pretending to attack passing strangers with an imaginary sword. The standard response in Tokyo was to scurry away, head down, pretending nothing had happened. In Osaka however, there were dramatic deaths played out in the street, complete with sound effects. For most Osakans, this relaxed, easy going attitude sums up the difference between the two cities. It's a trait that comes across in the food as well. Whilst Osaka does have its fair share of restaurants serving tiny morsels of exquisitely presented delicacies, the 'must try' local dishes are the casual comfort foods that embody the heart and soul of the city.