Osaka, Japan: Kuidaore (Last of 2 Parts) here
Crazed with food and living the city’s motto of kuidaore: going broke because of gluttony.
Often called Japan’s belly or the country’s kitchen, Osaka’s reverence for food can be traced to two factors: its vibrant history as a commercial hub and its port on Osaka Bay which remains as one of the nation’s most vital. This city, Japan’s second or third largest – my research differs – is also known as the Water City, partly evidenced by the rivers, bridges, and waterways that meander through it.
The passion that Osakans have for food is palpable, even to a tourist like me. People are always eating, mostly a permutation of what the Japanese call tabe-aruki (literally, ‘eating-walking’) – biting, chewing, sipping on the go. And who can blame them? The multi-colored hodgepodge of eating places is massive and at times, monstrous, the neon signs a killer kaleidoscope of temptation – give in or go home. It’s easy to submit to the salivary seduction.
Namba is one of Osaka’s two major city centers, a southern hub of glitz and excess, especially of the culinary sort. It’s here where I spend most of my short trip.
Famous even outside of Japan is Dotombori, a place that so pulsates with people and sights that it leaves me breathless. Its universal icons are the Glico Running Man and the Kani-Doraku crab (see cover photo), suspended in its infinite perch on the restaurant’s front. The area is also regarded as entertainment central for its nightclubs, its kabuki theaters, and the headquarters of TV studios specializing in manzai (stand-up comedy). It’s impossible to brood or remain stationary in Dotombori, its liveliness and colossal crush of people would sweep you away, quite literally.
Dotombori’s most famous restaurant, Kani-Doraku opens at 11am until the wee hours. It is, however, full all the time, with locals and tourists who feast on crab cooked in a variety of ways, from crab sukiyaki to steamed crab to crab sushi, and more. Even at this odd lunch hour of 3pm, there’s at least a 20-minute wait. My Bin and I give up and decide to go elsewhere, so audible are our stomach growls. But first, I step into the restaurant to ogle at the size of the king crabs lying blithely in their watery sanctuary, completely oblivious to their imminent fate. I’ve never seen such gigantic crabs!
That one of Osaka’s food specialties is the simple takoyaki says much about the city’s unaffected, gregarious nature. ‘Octopus balls’ made with shredded cabbage and other vegetables along with diced octopus are bound together in a wheat flour batter. At a restaurant or more commonly at a sidewalk stall, it’s a marvel to watch the cooks deftly pouring, poking, and turning these spheres that start out liquid and limp and metamorphose into shape.
I eat takoyaki every day that I’m in Osaka – it’s hard not to – but my favorite ones come from a restaurant that specializes in them. Located near Kani-Doraku, my Bin and I share an order of the regular takoyaki. They arrive as orbs pulsing with heat – careful, don’t burn your tongue! – and it’s an absolute joy to liberally drizzle, ok fine, squirt as much as we want of the Japanese mayonnaise and special ‘secret’ sauce atop. A final, heavy flourish of katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) heaped on – they shimmy, as if cheering on our lusty appetites – and we eat. Redolent with ginger and spring onions, I find that Osaka’s takoyakis are much wetter than those I eat elsewhere in Japan. Disturbingly addictive, I find an order of six is too little for me.
At the same restaurant, I also order another type of takoyaki: bikkuri takoyaki (above). Bikkuri is Japanese for ‘surprising,’ and so this takoyaki is because the octopus pieces are very large. We have to wait almost 15 minutes for them to finish cooking. Impressive and somewhat amusing to me what with the tentacles stretching out like some bizarre alien trapped within, it’s an experience to eat. It tastes just like its regular “unsurprising” counterpart, but the octopus pieces are much tougher because of their size. It takes a good minute or two to chomp down on them for easier transport down the gullet.
If you’re as mad for takoyaki as my Bin is, then a visit to the Osaka Takoyaki Museum might be in order. Located right outside Universal Studios Japan, it’s an easy tack-on to one’s itinerary. Its “museum” moniker is a misnomer however since it’s really five restaurants, each specializing in takoyaki from different parts of Japan. We taste some dotted with panko crumbs, some that are very creamy, and one loaded with nori. There’s also a big store to service all of one’s make-my-own takoyaki desires, including bottled sauces.
Okonomiyaki is also one of Osaka’s specialties, although it doesn’t seem as ubiquitous as takoyaki. We enjoy some at Chibo, a restaurant in Dotombori. Unlike other okonomiyaki restaurants I’ve been to in Japan, this one brings us our already cooked pancake (no, it’s not a pizza) bursting with our konomi (‘whatever takes our fancy’). The server drizzles some Japanese mayo and a sweetish brown sauce, taking the time to fashion a spider web-effect. Then it’s up to us to portion out the pancake and eat away. We just have to keep our eye out on the remaining okonomiyaki lest it toast to a crisp on the griddle. Mmm, okonomiyaki oishii!
Another Osaka specialty is hako-zushi, also known as oshi-zushi (pressed sushi) or Osaka-zushi. Vinegared rice is pressed into a square wooden mold, and topped (traditionally) with sea bream, but other kinds of seafood are also used. This now- firm “cake” of sushi is then sliced and served. As expected, it’s very firm, a quality that doesn’t detract from the pristine quality of the seafood.
Osaka is where Shiraishi Yoshiaki opened the country’s first conveyor-belt (kaiten-sushi) restaurant in 1950 but that type of place isn’t where I have a culinary epiphany. At a small, nondescript sushi-ya, I’m introduced to ama ebi, or simply, sweet (uncooked) shrimp. Raw and cool to the touch and tongue, I ease off the head and tail and pop the shrimp in my mouth. Every bite bounces back; every taste, sweet; freshness and pureness play. Wow.
I hunt down a restaurant that serves kitsune udon, a dish that my research makes clear is one of Osaka’s notable eats. Kitsune means ‘fox’ in Japanese but there’s no way I can look foxy while slurping udon and steaming soup crowned with a blanket of fried tofu. The broth has dampened the tofu’s crisp cover and imbued it with a velvety texture. Slightly sweet, it plays off very well with the noodles and soup. To hell with looking foxy, let me eat.
Other wonderful things that we eat along with the kitsune udon, from bottom and clockwise: sweet potato fritters, tempura and potato croquettes, beef udon soup, kari-udon.
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