Long-standing stereotypes about Kansai folks run as follows: Kyoto-ites spend their money on clothes; Kobe people on shoes; and Osakans blow all their cash on food.
The latter phrase, kuidaore, literally translated means “to eat until one falls over.” Though I lived in Kyoto for several years, in spirit, I think I identify more with the Osakans – they really know how to eat!
Osaka is home to numerous fine-dining establishments, and in this area can hold its own with neighbouring Kyoto in many respects. But where I think it truly shines is B-grade cuisine. “B-grade” doesn’t imply inferiority, but is simply a categorical counterpart to “A-grade cuisine.” The latter includes sushi and kaiseki, whereas B-grade cuisine is more like Japanese soul food. Think ramen, okonomiyaki, and curry rice. The American cultural analogue might be burgers or pizzas. B-grade cuisine is often greasy and high-calorie, hearty and inexpensive (though not necessarily so). It is always unpretentious, informal and delicious.
Here are a few dishes you have to try when you’re in Osaka.
When I’m wandering around Osaka and my mouth is lonely (this is an actual, super charming expression used in Japanese), I inevitably begin craving takoyaki – golfball-sized gooey balls of batter studded with octopus chunks. It’s a hard sell if you haven’t eaten it before, but stay with me. You know how mac and cheese is the ultimate creamy, cheesy comfort food? Takoyaki pushes all the same textural buttons, plus extra salt and sauce and grease. The best of them have bouncy octopus chunks suspended in molten batter, a little zip from chopped scallions and pickled red ginger.
Before serving, they’re liberally drenched in what I like to think of as Magic Kansai Sauce. (Disclaimer: This is not an official name, but it should be.) First, on goes a layer of zingy, sweet, salty brown sauce and ribbons of Japanese mayonnaise. The latter is thicker and sweeter than its American counterpart, and is likely to convert mayonnaise fence-sitters. A dusting of green laver, a goodly handful of shaved bonito flakes and some pickled red ginger completes the whole affair. This is the best mid-afternoon snack. Or consolation prize for missing the last train.
Quite often the takoyaki themselves don’t vary, but numerous variations on the sauce abound – instead of the tangy, Worcestershire-like brown sauce, there’s ponzu (soy sauce spiked with citrus juice); shoyu-spiked dashi; gomadare (sesame dressing); or just straight-up mayonnaise. Extra negi scallions are highly recommended.
If you’ve never watched takoyaki being cooked, carve out a few minutes to do that the next time you’re in Osaka. It’s a mesmerizing process. They liberally grease the special takoyaki moulds, before pouring in pale, cream-coloured liquid batter by the ladleful. Nuggets of octopus – one or two per ball – are scattered atop, followed by chopped negi, tenkasu (crispy tempura batter bits), and sometimes slivers of pickled red ginger. It’s quite magical, watching them flip these balls rapidly with wooden skewers, the way they acquire a gorgeous mottled caramel exterior.
Takoyaki usually comes in orders of 4 to 8 balls, which is just the right amount for a substantial snack, and not quite enough to ruin your next meal. Of course, if you’re worried about that, you could share your takoyaki. If you’re so inclined.
Okonomiyaki is a little tongue twister of a word, and eating it will make your tongue twist in delight. “Yaki” generally refers to anything cooked over direct heat; “okonomi” means “as you please.” The core of okonomiyaki is a cabbage pancake of sorts made with wheat flour, egg, nagaimo (mountain yam) and tenkasu, thinned with water or dashi. The latter two ingredients in particular are distinguishing features of Kansai-style okonomiyaki. However, there’s a good deal of flexibility in the toppings and protein components that go into it – pork belly is a popular choice, as are octopus slices, squid, shrimp, vegetables, konnyaku jelly, and cheese. Vary them as you please! The finishing touch here is a generous slather of Magic Kansai Sauce.
Though it’s sometimes referred to as Japanese pizza, there’s no real direct analogue to the concept of okonomiyaki in the English language. However, as Namiko Chen notes on her blog, you can think of it as a cross between a pancake and a frittata. Indeed, this is what makes Kansai-style okonomiyaki the creature it is. Though the name might imply that anything goes, without the main pancake-esque shape, it’s really just a saucy stir-fry. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which we’ll discuss another time, is primarily distinguished by its distinct layers of crepe, cabbage and noodles.
Okonomiyaki is already hearty, but even more substantial than this is modanyaki – that’s all of the above with an extra layer of fried yakisoba noodles or udon wheat noodles. Of course, if you’re going to eat this like the locals do, you’ll treat this as a side dish and eat it with a bowl of rice. I personally can’t combine two or three different carbohydrates in a single meal (or a single bite) but hey, when in Rome…
This dish is typically cooked on a teppan hotplate, and you can either do it yourself at the table (they mix up the batter for you and bring the ingredients to your table) or order it from the kitchen. I like the counter seat at okonomiyaki restaurants so I can watch them cook it in front of me. I love watching them assemble it all and listening to the musical clink of metal spatulas against the hotplate. The worst thing about this dish is the several minutes you spend watching all the ingredients sizzle in front of you. It is pure torture.
Pronounced “do-tay-ya-key,” and alternatively referred to as dote-ni, doteyaki is a dish of beef tendons submerged in a golden miso-enriched liquid, gently simmered into tender submission. There might be konnyaku jelly for texture and bulk, and it’s often served with a scattering of aonegi (green scallions) and shichimi red pepper. Sometimes it’s cooked on a teppan hotplate, and sometimes it’s simmered in a claypot. It might be served to you on skewers or in a bowl.
This brief description still doesn’t fully convey its soul-warming magic. The best doteyaki I ever had was cooked by an Osakan granny who had set up a stall at the Gion festival in Kyoto. I spent a while begging her for the recipe; I was not successful, but apparently it contains 6 different kinds of miso. And now you know all her secrets.
Sometimes you’ll see gyusuji nikomi on restaurant menus, which also refers to stewed beef tendons. On the surface, this looks pretty similar to doteyaki, but can also contain offcuts other than tendons.
Doteyaki is not Instagram-pretty, but doteyaki does not need to dress up for anyone. It’s sloppy and gloppy and in some cases looks like your dog threw up, but when it gets down to business, it will make your tongue shudder and your knees shiver in happiness. Nonkiya specialises in doteyaki, but most Osaka izakaya worth their salt will also have a version on their menu. Eat and swoon.
Shinsekai is one of my favorite districts in Osaka. It has a reputation for being one of the most unsafe neighbourhoods in Japan, though I would hasten to add that this is a measure of high standards for safety here rather than an indication of danger. It’s been largely neglected for the past few decades, but I love the atmosphere of wistful sepia grime that seems to suffuse the area, the way it seems trapped in a time bubble. Its name, “the new world,” is the epitome of the city’s dreams for the future. What better symbol of these vanished dreams than Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka’s answer to the Eiffel Tower?
It was during prewar Shinsekai that kushikatsu was supposedly born, created to cater to working class laborers who needed cheap, fast, tasty fuel. Kushikatsu literally means ‘pork cutlet on a stick,’ but refers to this genre of skewered, battered and deep-fried food. Anything can be kushikatsu’d. Chicken gizzards. Asparagus. Cubes of cheese. Oysters. Pork dumplings. Ice cream. Your left shoe. Kushikatsu restaurant menus can be pretty extensive, and because the ingredients are typically fresh, it feels a little better than eating McD’s. It’s hard to go wrong with these greasy little heart palpitations.
Kushikatsu is distinguished by its batter: light, crunchy panko bread crumbs bound together with egg and a little flour. You’ll want to order just a few sticks at a time, so that they’re always hot and fresh from the fryer. Eat them while they’re still hot enough to blister your tongue. It’s the only way to do it.
You’ll want to dip this in tonkatsu sauce, which is a variant on that magical, tangy, dark brown sauce. Are you seeing a pattern in Osaka’s B-grade gourmet food yet? The sauce comes in a communal pot at the table – let’s keep it PG, please – and you dip your food-on-a-stick right in. The only hard and fast rule of kushikatsu comes in here: don’t double dip. I think that’s something we can agree on everywhere. Instead, use a spoon or a cabbage leaf provided to scoop more sauce from the pot onto your half-eaten skewer.
You can order a la carte, or you can play a game of deep-fried Russian roulette. Order a set menu or the omakase, which gives you 10-15 surprise skewers. It’s a great way to try a variety of kushikatsu, and because everything is coated in brown panko batter, it’s sometimes hard to predict what you’re going to eat until you bite into it. It’s super fun and tasty, especially if you’re a little tipsy.
Numerous kushikatsu establishments abound in Shinsekai. Some of the more famous ones are Yakko, Yokozuna and Yaekatsu, though you could walk into most of them and end up with a perfectly decent meal. It’s quite hard to go wrong with kushikatsu.
For a break between all the greasy deep-fried foods you’re going to consume, have some sushi. There is, of course, the hand-pressed nigirizushi that everyone’s familiar with, but since you’re in Osaka, you should try hakozushi. This is literally “box sushi” that’s been made and shaped in – you guessed it – a wooden box mould. Also known as oshizushi or pressed sushi, vinegar rice is packed into the mould and topped with cooked seafood such as poached shrimp and sea eel, as well as strands of golden omelette. It’s then turned out and sliced like a cake. A gorgeous, multicoloured, geometric cake of fish and rice.
It’s a rather labour-intensive dish, so specialist restaurants are few and far between, but one of the few places in Osaka that still does it is Yoshino Sushi. Hakozushi is not what I’d choose to eat on my death day, but it’s an aesthetically-pleasing meal that won’t leave you with arterial regrets the next day.
In Japan, there’s a world of wagyu beyond Kobe beef. Kobe beef is but one breed, jostling with other herds of equally well-marbled, pampered cows whose sole purpose in life is to line your arteries with melting fat. And one of the best ways to appreciate these cows is by going to town on yakiniku.
Yakiniku is better known in English as Korean-style barbecue, and when made with Japanese beef is absolutely killer. Get thee on a train to Tsuruhashi, home to a good majority of Osaka’s Korean population. Tsuruhashi straddles the border between Tennoji and Ikuno wards, and it is the district for yakiniku restaurants. The moment you step out of the train in the evening you’re enveloped by the smoky, savoury scent of grilled beef and offal. Dive into the maze of narrow alleyways lined with yakiniku joints, and peruse their menus. Pick one. It’ll be hard to go wrong here.
In most restaurants, the meat will be salt or tare-grilled. The former is self-explanatory. Tare (pronounced ta-ray), on the other hand, is an umami-packed marinade of soy sauce, sake, sweet rice wine, garlic, sugar or juice, and sesame oil. It pairs well with certain cuts of beef, especially more robustly flavored ones. In some places the tare is so damn delicious I want to sip it like a fine wine. Some restaurants allow you to choose the marinade for your beef, but I prefer to let them decide. They usually know best, and it makes ordering so much easier. You then grill your parts at the table on wire griddles.
Reading the yakiniku menu is like diving into a secret bovine world. It might leave your head spinning with the specificity and granularity in which cow parts are distinguished. For instance, there’s a special term just for meat around the diaphragm! There’s too many to go into detail, but here are some choice cuts to begin your yakiniku journey with:
- Kalbi: Tender, juicy, uber-marbled short ribs.
- Jo-kalbi: Kalbi’s evolved form. “Jo” anything means a higher quality version of that cut.
- Harami: Skirt steak, or meat from around the diaphragm. Super tender, robustly flavored – best with tare.
- Zabuton: Chuck eye roll, from around the ribcage. The word means ‘cushion,’ which gives you an idea of its texture.
- Rosu: Lean but tender, lightly marbled cuts of meat from around the shoulder and back.
- Tan: Beef tongue for French kissing. Best salt-grilled to appreciate its taste and texture.
One of my favorite non-grilled dishes to eat at a yakiniku restaurant is yukke (yukhoe in Korean). This is fresh, raw, fatty beef that’s been julienned and seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and salt; and sometimes also with spring onion, minced garlic, pepper and Korean pear. Break the raw egg yolk nestled on top and mix it all together. With top quality beef, this is unbeatable. Think of it as steak tartare amplified by awesome.
What if you’re the only vegetarian in your group? Well, a yakiniku restaurant isn’t a total loss. Order every single vegetable on the menu – the better restaurants will have things like bell pepper, shiitake mushroom, carrots, onions and more. Grill them and douse in the delicious dipping sauce. Add a bowl of rice and a raw egg and you’re good to go for dinner.
In general, my experience is that you do get what you pay for with beef, which is how you end up with A-grade prices for yakiniku. But leaving the restaurant smelling like the best grilled beef ever is an utterly, completely, delightfully B-grade experience. It’s hard to have beef with that.
The word horumon is a play on “hormone,” or “horumon” in the Kansai dialect, meaning “discarded goods.” Let’s be clear: it refers to the nasty bits from beef or pork. Think sweetbreads, tripe, stomach, uterus, and more. (For an excellent breakdown of various parts available at a horumonyaki place, check out this post on Chowhound. In America, these parts are often discarded, but horumon is a hallowed cuisine in Japan. Women love it because all that collagen is great for your skin; everyone loves it because it supposedly gives you a ton of stamina. Horumonyaki (grilled horumon) is often considered a subset of yakiniku, but it deserves a section of its own, especially because there are restaurants which specialize entirely in serving these offcuts.
To enjoy horumon, you have to be adventurous about texture. Good horumon is typically sourced from high-quality wagyu cattle, but at the end of the day you still have to be open to eating offal. Depending on the parts you’re eating, horumon parts can be chewy, crunchy, corrugated, creamy, fatty, tender, even raw. That’s right – uncooked. It takes real skill and judgment to prepare horumon that’s delicious but clean and safe to eat raw. Incidentally, some of the best grilled beef I’ve ever had was tare-marinated small intestine – ringed with fat, it chars beautifully over a charcoal fire and drips grease right into your mouth. It’s glorious.
Start by ordering a few pieces of horumon at the yakiniku restaurant, and let your tongue be the judge. Then move on to full-blown horumonyaki, and never look back.