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.
License to Grill
Without wanting to patronise any ritzy restaurants, my plan was to go with the flow and follow the locals into small hole-in-the-wall restaurants and sake bars. This is how I stumbled upon Genpachi Mittera-ten. This tiny restaurant has just 12 seats and a great atmosphere. Chefs and owners Hirata Hiroshi aka Sanzo, and Fukumoto Shinichi stock 200 kinds of shochu and some very good sake. On the food front, their fare is yakitori (grilled skewered meats). Their spicy fried chicken and grilled octopus were perfect partners with a few cups of hot sake. Sanzo explained that the unique taste of their meat comes from yuki-jio or ‘snow salt’. After several sticks and sakes, it was time to call it a night before I did a kuidaore and dropped like a fly.
I slept for a ludicrously short time in order to get to Osaka’s central wholesale market on time. Arriving at 4.00am, there was barely enough time to look around before things got under way. The blowfish auction had just ended and the tuna auction was about to start. All the bidders carried small knives and cut little pieces off the tuna to taste before and during the auction. From the most experienced chefs to sushi enthusiasts, everyone depends on their discerning palates to spot the tastiest fish.
The tunas were lined up in different sections of the room, separated in batches of frozen and fresh fish. A bell was rung and they were off, with the auctioneer screaming at the top of his lungs. If you closed your eyes, you could be excused for thinking you had just stumbled upon a gang of angry yakuza taking revenge on an unlucky victim. In contrast to the gesticulating, screaming auctioneer, the bidders remained incredibly calm. They held up little slates with a number relating to the fish they were bidding for. If two bidders ended up with the same fish, a quick hand of Scissors-Paper-Stone soon sorted things out.
There was an auction for each batch of fish lasting five minutes each. Strong, stony-faced men then carted the tuna off to be cut. Mitsuo Ota, a third-generation market trader, is one of these men who can cut a whole fresh tuna into huge, neat fillets in just minutes. The speed and precision of his work was simply dumbfounding.
An incredible 2,900 tonnes of food changes hands at this market daily and by 7.00am, it was all over. By then, the fresh produce was on its way to restaurants and smaller markets, such as Kuromon Market.
If sushi for breakfast sounds appealing, there is a great place to sample some of the freshest fish around in order to start your day. Endo Sushi, a tiny restaurant just outside the market lays its hands on the freshest of fish even before they get a chance to venture out to other parts of the city.
Keeping Alive Osakan Traditions
Tucked away in a back street in Osaka’s Hommashi business district is Mimiu Honten, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. Owner, 82-year-old Satsuma U Itchi greeted me with a bow and a gigantic grin. This family business has been thriving for over 200 years and Satsuma keeps the tradition going. He started cooking at the age of 12 under his father’s guidance and it was his father who came up with the idea of udon suki, the restaurant’s speciality and a registered trademark of Mimiu. Although Satsuma still keeps a close eye on the business at the restaurant, food preparation is now taken care of by head chef Katsuo U.
After a visit to their mill nearby, where fresh udon and soba noodles are made fresh daily, the time finally came to sample udon suki. A waitress soon arrived with a mouth watering platter. The udon goes into the broth first to take on the flavours of the broth. Then in go cabbage, chicken, shitake mushrooms and eel, followed by moshi (rice cake), yuba (bean curd skin), hirosu (a bean curd cake with gingko nuts and vegetables), and sato imo (a glutinous root). The platter also comes with clams and two live tiger prawns. The ingredients change depending on the season, and sometimes sake too goes into the broth.
Sushi – Osaka Style
I had heard about the uniqueness of Osakan sushi and was told to taste the dish at Yoshino Sushi. Before walking through the curtains I was told that Oyama U Itchi, head chef and manager at the restaurant was a ‘very serious’ man. I imagined a razor-sharp knife-flaunting 71-year-old with a bad temper. But as it turned out Oyama, the most celebrated Osaka-style sushi chef, was a real pleasure to be with and good fun too.
Osaka’s hakozushi (boxed sushi) is a traditional form unique to the region. Unlike Tokyo’s nigiri (hand-pressed sushi), all the ingredients are either cooked or cured. Oyama is one of the last sushi chefs still keeping this art alive.
He demonstrated the process for me in his kitchen. The four main ingredients were sea bream, conga eel, shrimp and egg. The rice, which came studded with mushroom and vegetables, was flavoured with vinegar. Cooked rice was pressed into a small, open wooden box and pieces of marinated fish were placed on top. A flat piece of wood was then used to press it down lightly. This all of course happened at lightning speed. The square slab of pressed sushi was then cut into neat rectangular pieces before being served with the eel that was glazed with soy sauce.
The original owners of Yoshino Sushi came up with their idea of boxed sushi about 160 years ago and later created the mixed box now known as Osaka sushi. But according to Oyama, out of about 5,000 sushi bars in the Kansai region, only 10 still make it Osaka-style. He attributes this to changing tastes and the strong influence of the nigiri sushi.
Food culture in Osaka is a mix of proud traditions kept alive by chefs like Oyama, and modern influences like instant ramen, which was invented here by the way. But it is the quality of the produce and the fun-loving people who serve that make this a memorable culinary adventure like no other.