The 4,907-Mile Diet: The Best Food in Osaka
Writer Steve Burgess had a hankering for some Japanese food, and he was willing to travel the distance to satisfy his craving.
The English language sometimes absorbs outside words—schadenfreude, barista, sauté, Madonna. Here’s a Japanese candidate that would fill a grammatical niche: kuidaore. It means “to bring on financial and personal ruin purely through overindulgence in food and drink.” But when the Japanese speak of kuidaore, they are speaking not just about a behaviour, but a particular place and culture. Kuidaore, they believe, is native to the city of Osaka.
Osaka doesn’t offer the curb appeal of its close neighbour, temple-rich Kyoto. Nor does it get the screen time enjoyed by Tokyo, its eastern megalopolis rival. Osaka takes pride in its identity as a no-nonsense metropolis where folks work hard, speak plainly and, when it’s time, cut loose and enjoy themselves. The food is similarly direct and unpretentious and tends toward the cheap and cheerful. But amid this relative normality, two dishes have been birthed that are national staples: takoyaki and okonomiyaki. The first is an octopus-based treat, the other a kind of cabbage pancake. Both taste better than they sound, and, like Guinness in Dublin, you really have to travel there to enjoy them properly.
Which is how I found myself 8,000 kilometres from home, walking through the Umeda district on my way to an unassuming little stall at the corner of two narrow lanes. Tako-Ya is my favourite Osaka takoyaki spot. I can’t say it’s the best—it just happens to be the one I bumped into on my first visit, the place where I discovered that takoyaki really does taste better here. In actuality, it’s a pretty straightforward dish. It starts on a grill lined with circular pockets, filled with dollops of batter made from a special flour mix and speckled with bits of ginger. A piece of cooked octopus (tako) is plopped in the middle and the whole mix is fried (that’s the yaki part of the name—hence fried soba noodles are yakisoba), turned periodically to create a gooey brown ball. Orders of six or eight are then slathered with a dark brown, slightly sweet sauce, criss-crossed with Japanese mayonnaise, and, usually, sprinkled with parsley and bonito flakes. Sitting at a little table across from Tako-Ya on a brisk winter day, I am puffing out jets of steam as I bite into the hot batter.
A short stroll away there’s a little food mall called Kappa Yokocho, marked by two anthropomorphic animals—ducks or frogs, I can’t really tell—toasting each other with wineglasses. Here you’ll find Botejyu, which specializes in okonomiyaki. The sign is in Japanese, but it’s never very hard to spot an okonomiyaki place. The counter and tables are usually fitted with flat grills so the dish can be cooked as you watch.
Okonomiyaki is more substantial than takoyaki. Like a lot of Osaka dishes it involves cabbage, but also eggs, flour, and some stuff you’re not likely to find at Safeway, like nagaimo (taro root) and dashi stock. It’s one of those dishes that has never really made the crossing to North America—too distinctively Japanese, perhaps. There are numerous variations on the dish (notably hiroshimayaki, a drier style that involves fried noodles sandwiched between crepes), but the Osaka style is the standard. At Botejyu I sit at the counter and order the shrimp and pork special for about 1,300 yen—about $16. A serious-looking chef sets to work mixing ingredients in a metal bowl and dumping them onto the grill. The cabbage-flour-egg mixture starts to firm up, and there are pork strips and shrimp frying in there somewhere, too. Finally, it’s topped in much the same way as takoyaki—sweetish, brown okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes, seaweed flakes, Japanese mayo. Okonomiyaki can be gluey and a little tasteless if not executed properly—too much sauce can overwhelm it, too. But done right, as at Botejyu, it’s hearty, savoury and rib-sticking—like a multi-vehicle pileup of omelette, stir-fry, pancake and cabbage roll.
Osaka may have conquered Japan with takoyaki and okonomiyaki—imagine the bragging rights if hot dogs and hamburgers both came from, say, Chicago—but it didn’t win every Japanese culinary battle. Osaka-style sushi is known as hakozushi, and it’s far less heralded than the Tokyo style, which is what the rest of the world thinks of when they think sushi. In actuality, hakozushi is only subtly different—the fish and rice are gently pressed together to create something akin to a little sushi layer cake. When I finally find some in the Hanshin department store, it’s a bit of a letdown. Taste-wise, it turns out to be indistinguishable from the more familiar variety—the difference is merely stylistic.
Like most visits, this time I will leave town with a souvenir of Osaka, hanging just above the belt. But embracing kuidaore seems like a civic obligation, so it’s just part of the deal. It was fun, though, and I’m sure I’ll recover. If I swim home.