Citizens of Osaka have a word to describe their attitude to eating: Kuidaore! which means ‘eat until you drop’. With a mix of proud food traditions, food theme parks, plastic food replicas and instant ramen noodles, visiting Osaka will certainly pile on the pounds.
Words & Photography: Cedric Arnold/TCS
Osakans are unashamed gourmands. The local maxim Kiudaore! (Eat until you drop!) says it all. And the best way to see how this is done is to arrive here on a Friday. Once the offices close, Osaka’s streets, restaurants and bars fill up quick, and some customers literally do drop at the end of the evening, although in those cases one suspects the culprit might be copious amounts of sake or umeshu rather than bowls of udon.
It was still morning and there was plenty of time to discover the city before my first evening of indulgence. I decided not to take the underground and instead walked the equivalent of three or four stops through one of Asia’s longest shopping arcades to Kuromon Market. The walk took longer than planned due to the frequent stops I made at food stands in Dotonbori, Osaka’s version of Times Square. This is the best place to sample local snacks eaten on the run such as takoyaki, which translates as ‘octopus balls’ but probably better described as dumplings made from batter, diced octopus and all kinds of other goodies. Be warned though: Osakans love their mayonnaise and they certainly don’t hold back on the stuff at most takoyaki stands. Luckily, I saw how much went on the previous customer’s order and opted for a brown Worcestershire sauce-like topping instead. This, I later found out, is the sauce for another Osaka speciality: Okonomiyaki, a pancake that some call Japizza.
Kuromon market is over 170 years old and is a testament to the abundant supply of quality produce in Osaka. A walk through the market took me past a plethora of vegetables, fruit, spices, pickles, seaweed, fresh fish and other seafood, including an Osakan favourite, the deadly fugu (blowfish). I stared in admiration at a huge piece of tuna at a fishmonger and clumsily uttered one of the few Japanese words I knew: Oki (big). The kimono-clad trader laughed and gestured to ask if I wanted to taste some.“Oishi, arigato gozaimasu,” I replied. That left me with about three words in my repertoire, but in that one bite I knew eating sashimi back home would never be the same again.
Oodles of Noodles
Next, I went in search of a bowl of udon. A favourite variety of this wheat flour noodle soup in Osaka is kitsune udon, or ‘fox udon’. It comes with aburaage (sweetened deep-fried tofu pockets) and the best place to sample the real thing is at Matsubaya Udon, where the dish was invented. With its 100-year history, the restaurant is one of the most respected in Osaka. Third generation owner, Usami Masahiro prides himself on using only the best quality ingredients to make sure he keeps to the original recipe, invented by his grandfather.
By early afternoon I seemed to have turned into a bottomless pit. Walking through the neon wonderland of Dotonbori was entertainment in itself. There were people everywhere and big queues at certain popular places, like the Alaska crab restaurant with the giant moving crab attached to its wall. I decided to try okonomiyaki. Fearful of making a mess, I avoided the grill-it-yourself establishment but instead, opted for a street stall and ordered away – not entirely sure what I was getting. I watched the young man fry things, and sprinkle squid, spring onions and a few other mysterious objects on my Japizza. Dried bonito fish flakes were heaped onto the okonomiyaki and did lend a delicious finish to it.