WINE AND DINE OSAKA
Once known as the Nation's Kitchen, Osaka still holds the title of Food Capital of Japan. Here, food is so varied, so abundant and so tasty that locals have coined the expression kuiadore - literally to eat oneself bankrupt. Fittingly, the city has well over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants serving everything from 16-course kaiseki meals at Honkogetsu to deceptively simple yakatori at Ayamua. And while Osaka has some of the world's finest dining establishments, many of the best food experiences won't leave you anywhere close to bankrupt. To sample Osaka's best local fare, head down to the canals of Dotombori where street vendors sell takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake) straight off the grill. Or to experience the authentic atmosphere of Osaka from days gone by, stroll down the stone-paved, lantern-lit alleyway of Dotombori's Hozenji Yokocho lined on both sides with small food shops and cafes.
More authentic Osaka can be found at Shinsekai, located to the west of Tennoji Park. Under the 100-metre-tall Tsutenkaku Tower, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, hundreds of authentic restaurants can be found serving delicacies like kushi-yaki (breaded, friend skewers) and the poisonous puffer fish known as fugu.
Finally, any gourmet experience would not be complete without a visit to the basement floor of departments stores like Takashimaya and Daimaru, where possibly the world's greatest food show takes place every day. On display here are literally thousands of the most exquisitely prepared items, from trays of pastries to barrels of vibrant pickles to mountains of sushi. And if you venture to the upper floors, you'll find some of the finest restaurants where you can sit down for a superb meal.
Enjoy the gourmet capital of Japan
It's said that the people of Osaka are happy and openhearted because they eat good food. Indeed, since ancient times, the best of the land and sea has found its way to the great city, spawning Osaka's "kuidaore" culture, and creating countless excellent places to eat.
Eating in the City of "Kuidaore"
Kuidaore, which literally means "eat until you drop" or "stuff yourself until you can't eat anymore", describes Osaka's food-loving culture. Osaka chefs take great pride in their craft, carefully selecting the finest ingredients to exhibit their outstanding culinary skills. Likewise, Osaka eaters take great pleasure in their eating, always eager to partake of a good culinary delight.
As a result, Osaka has great food. Whether it be traditional Japanese meals, local dishes or foods from other countries, you'll find a little bit of everything--at a wide range of prices.
You'll also find all sorts of restaurants, from high-class establishments to local neighborhood shops. Family-style restaurants offer menus with various dishes for adults and children alike. Noodle and beef bowl shops are the place to catch a quick bite when you're pressed for time. You'll also find many popular fast-food restaurants from the U.S., like Starbucks, but for a taste of local fare, why not try a freshly-brewed coffee from a traditional Japanese "kissaten".
The widest selection of restaurants is in Osaka's main entertainment districts, with the highest concentration of all in the Umeda (Kita) and Dotombori (Minami) areas. Most of the high-class restaurants are located in the best hotels or the central entertainment districts. A walk in the vicinity of any train station will reveal a plethora of restaurants with varied menus and prices that range from reasonable to almost unimaginable. Many restaurants display a menu with photographs and prices. Others have realistic-looking wax and plastic models of menu items with prices in their showcase windows.
Prices at most restaurants include sales tax, but a special gratuity charge can be expected at high-class restaurants. Typically, diners receive a bill and pay a cashier as they leave. Tipping is not practiced at restaurants in Japan. Payment is made in cash, although many restaurants will accept credits cards. Inexpensive restaurants, coffee shops and fast-food outlets accept cash only. Some eating establishments may ask customers to purchase a coupon from a vending machine in advance and hand it over to a waiter.
All Types of Food from Every Country Under the Sun
Some of the world's best chefs have come to Osaka, and prepare exquisite meals from their homelands. You can readily find the finest French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Thai food at restaurants throughout Osaka, or you can try more exotic cuisines, from Indonesia, Turkey, Nepal, Peru and Vietnam.
Of course, Osaka also offers every variation of authentic Japanese cuisine, as well as its own distinctive tastes of Osaka.
In Osaka, you're never more than a few minutes away from a feast that's convenient, inexpensive, but above all, delicious to eat. Boxed lunches that feature locally available food are sold at airports and major train stations and aboard long-distance trains. Convenience stores sell sandwiches, boxed lunches and other hot food you can take out.
A uniquely Japanese way of eating for anyone in a hurry is the stand-up noodle bar. Inexpensive bowls of noodles are served to customers who eat them while standing at a counter. These stands are mainly found in major train stations. Food stalls that sell Chinese noodles and other inexpensive dishes pop up on street corners after dark. And you may also want to try "kaiten-zushi", otherwise known as sushi trains, those reasonably priced self-serve restaurants where customers sit at a counter and plates of sushi circle by on a conveyor belt. The number of plates taken off the conveyor determines the price of the meal.
Food stalls that sell Chinese noodles and other inexpensive dishes pop up on street corners after dark. And you may also want to try "kaiten-zushi", otherwise known as sushi trains, those reasonably priced self-serve restaurants where customers sit at a counter and plates of sushi circle by on a conveyor belt. The number of plates taken off the conveyor determines the price of the meal.
Coffee shops, or "kissaten" in Japanese, have traditionally been convenient places for businessmen to conduct their dealings, and now are popular with almost everyone. Coffee shop owners pride themselves in the aromatic cups of richly brewed coffee they blend and serve. Coffee at these quaint shops, which are also neighborhood gathering spots, is strong so those who prefer a lighter taste should order "American coffee".
More recently, coffee shops operated by chains such as Starbucks, Seattle's Best, Mr. Donuts and domestic companies like Dotour have become popular places to sip a freshly brewed cup of java while chatting with friends or reading a book.
The most reasonably priced drinking establishments in Osaka are called "tachi-nomi" (stand and drink). These are usually liquor stores or stalls that serve their products to businessmen returning home in the evening.
Delicious and Inexpensive: Local Osaka Fare
Since its beginnings, Osaka has had an entrepreneurial character, which in turn led to higher and higher demand for culinary skills. Daring chefs and restaurant owners always willing to experiment with new methods have created many unique and exquisite delicacies. As a focal point of trade during the Edo Period, fresh food from all over Japan and the globe found its way to Osaka--and fueled the Osakan passion for great tasting food at reasonable prices.
A varied range of culinary masterpieces can trace their origins to Osaka. They include such standard fare as "tako-yaki", "okonomi-yaki" and "kitsune" udon noodles on the low end to "tecchiri" and beautifully sculpted blocks of sushi on the high end.
Any visit to Osaka wouldn't be complete without trying these local delicacies, which are served at affordable eateries located in main entertainment districts, along shopping arcades, in the basement of office buildings and in shopping malls.
Here is an overview of some of the most popular Osaka fare:
The most representative of local Osaka food is tako-yaki (small octopus dumplings). Tako-yaki is made by heating a mixture of flour and water with pieces of boiled octopus, chopped scallions and other ingredients in a pan with small circular shaped molds. Served piping hot with a special sauce topping, each bite-sized morsel is a tasty snack that Osakans eat at any time of the day. One serving of tako-yaki is between six and twelve balls, depending on their size.
Tako-yaki is typically served at small specialty shops. Some shops can seat a few customers, while others only have a window for take-away service. Each shop has its own menu, taste and style of presentation.
The origin of tako-yaki is thought to be Aizu-ya, a shop that still exists today. The shop's first owner created what later developed into tako-yaki in 1933.
"Okonomi" means "as you like it," and represents the thinking behind another one of Osaka's popular dishes. Okonomi-yaki consists of a batter grilled on a hot plate with diced cabbage, sliced pork (or other meat), shrimp (or other seafood), eggs, and other ingredients. Once grilled, this pancake-shaped dish is topped with a BBQ-like sauce, mayonnaise, "katsuo-bushi" (dried fish shavings) and "aonori" (finely grated dried seaweed). As opposed to Hiroshima-style okonomi, in which the batter and ingredients are grilled separately, Osaka-style okonomi-yaki is mixed in a bowl before grilling.
Although okonomi-yaki is easily made at home, Osakans often go to okonomi-yaki restaurants for their special tastes. Popular okonomi-yaki chains are Chibo and Fugetsu. Another restaurant with a long tradition is Boteju, which has been in business for over 50 years.
Udon noodles are not original to Osaka, but local shop owners here created their own unique twist by adding a thin piece of fried tofu, called kitsune, to the broth. The sweetly flavored kitsune is a perfect match for the savory udon noodles. Many small noodle shops, each with their own special broths and handmade noodles, serve bowls of hot kitsune udon. Now it's standard Osaka fare.
On the high end of local Osaka cuisine is tecchiri, a type of "nabe" (hot pot) dish, all of which are commonly eaten in the colder months of the year. Nabe are made in metal or ceramic pots, where fresh vegetables, tofu and other ingredients are cooked in a broth with a selection of seafood or meat. Tecchiri is a full course meal that features blowfish, which is considered a great delicacy. The meal starts with thinly sliced raw blowfish and finishes with a delicious nabe of chopped blowfish and vegetables. Many restaurants serve this elegant meal, but prices vary depending on the venue.
Another type of nabe is "udon-tsuki", a large pot of fresh fish or meat, vegetables and tofu stewed in a clear broth. Once everything has been cooked, udon noodles are added to the rich-tasting soup to culminate the meal.
This famous dish also originates in Osaka. Shabu-shabu is a nabe in which thinly sliced pieces of high quality beef are dipped into the boiling broth and removed while the meat is still rare or in accordance with each diner's preference. The beef is then dipped lightly in either a citron vinegar soy sauce or in a sesame sauce dip.
The type of sushi most commonly eaten overseas, whereby rice and fish are molded by hand, is called Edo-mae sushi, and originates in what is now the Tokyo area. Osaka-style sushi, on the other hand, is called "hakozushi" (box sushi) and is quite different. It is made by pressing sushi rice into a square wooden box mold with egg, shrimp, grilled eel, raw fish, shiitake mushrooms and other colorful fresh ingredients placed on top and in between layers. This special combination of color and delicate tastes is then sliced into bite-sized pieces and served.
Synonymous with the Hozenji-Yokocho in Namba, "me-oto zenzai" is a popular sweet snack among Osakans. Also the name of the establishment within the precincts of Hozenji Temple that serves it, me-oto zenzai is made up of two bowls of sweetly cooked soy beans. Its name, which means "married couple," comes from the two bowls, which are to be shared among two people. The Me-oto Zenzai shop, which seats a maximum of 10 customers, first opened in 1908.
Developed in Osaka as an easier way to eat deep-fried pork cutlets, kushi-katsu are bite-sized chunks of meat or slices of vegetables stuck on a bamboo skewer and deep fried. Depending on what's underneath the batter, diners either dip the kushi-katsu in a sauce or eat it with salt, spices or tartar sauce.
Kushi-katsu, which first appeared at sidewalk food vendors, is popular amongst businessmen who stop at izakaya-type casual restaurants after work for a couple of drinks and some light food. Menus at these lively establishments, such as Yaekatsu in the Shin-Sekai district, change depending on the season and what's fresh.
If you go out for kushi-katsu please note: it's not proper etiquette to dip your skewer in the sauce containers after you've taken a bite, because the sauce containers are for all diners. Signs on restaurant walls remind diners of this rule.