With a population of 2.5 million, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city. Not always at the top of the list of places to visit, this industrial and ex-commercial centre has an incredible food scene that not everyone knows about.
From breaded octopus to savory pancakes, Osaka has such a varied cuisine, so here is my guide of what to eat in Osaka.
“There are three types of ‘soul-food’ in Osaka – kushikatsu, okonomiyaki and takoyaki”, our food tour guide informed us as we weaved through the market stalls of downtown Tsuruhashi.
“We have a word in these parts that describes our way of addressing food – kuiadore. It roughly translates to ‘eating yourself into a stupor’.”
A food philosophy I can get on board with, and a good one to embrace when visiting this part of Japan. Osaka is bold and brash, hip and cool, full of protruding neon and delightful people waiting to feed you at every opportunity.
Also known as kushiage, these are lightly breaded and deep-fried skewers of – anything. And it really can be anything, from bamboo shoots and octopus tentacles to yam cake and cheese.
For an upmarket experience, try Rokukakutei (Building 2F, 1-21-16, Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku), a Michelin starred counter-seating restaurant and one of the best restaurants in Osaka. The skill is in the artistic arrangement of the ingredients concealed by the coating, delightfully unveiled at first bite. 20 skewers of wonderful produce (think lotus root stuffed with curried beef and Japanese whiting with baby ferns), plus dessert and coffee will set you back around £58pp.
At the other end of the spectrum, head to Shinsekai – the kushikatsu district of Osaka with over 60 restaurants specialising in it. Yaekatsu (3-4-13 Ebisu-higashi, Naniwa-ku) is the most popular, often with dinner-time queues out the door, and understandably so. The batter recipe is a closely-guarded secret, but does contain a little grated yam (we were told on the sly). Skewers around £2 and remember, no double-dipping in the sauce.
What do you get when you cross an omelette, a savoury pancake and a lot of raw cabbage? The Japanese favourite that is okonomiyaki – widely available across Japan but heavily associated with Osaka and the Kansai region. Okonomi literally translates to ‘what you want’ and yaki means ‘to grill’, so the premise of this dish is to fill it with what you fancy.
There are many chains in town but head to independent and family-run Ajinoya (1-7-16, Namba, Chuo-ku), regarded as one of the best places for it. A 3-minute walk from Namba Station and feeding hungry patrons for 60 years, your meal is cooked on the griddle at your table.
A layering of batter (egg, flour, grated yam, dashi, raw cabbage), thinly sliced pork belly and more cabbage are cooked together then slathered with a sweet and viscous sauce, slashed with mustard and mayonnaise, sprinkled with powdered seaweed, and furnished with bonito flakes dancing from the heat – the result of which is a stellar meal. They also do great version with green onions and shrimp (without the sweet sauce), and yakisoba (fried soba noodles).
Forgo the chopsticks and make like the Osakans – eat with the spatula straight from the griddle – hot!
Octopus balls. Not an anatomy part, but flour-based dumplings containing diced or minced octopus (tako), pickled ginger, spring onions and grilled in a special cast-iron pan lined with half-spherical molds. They’re dressed with a similar sauce combination found on okonomiyaki, but toppings and contents do vary.
Their conception came about in the thirties when a street vendor named Tomekichi Endo was inspired by akashiyaki, a small round dumpling from the city of Akashi made from an egg-rich batter and octopus. Often served in small bamboo boats, these are now found all over the region and beyond.
When in doubt, follow the crowds – and the giant octopus. Dotombori Konamon Museum (Chuwa Daiichi Bldg, 1-6-12, Dotombori, Chuo-ku) on the pulsating Dotombori strip has a perpetual (fast-moving) queue of both locals and tourists. Pick up 8 for around £3.20 or 12 for £4.40, walk through to the back, take a seat and devour. And why not pop upstairs after and try your hand at making a wax takoyaki.
Our food guide was from All Star Osaka.
Leyla Kazim is a London food based and travel writer, and author of blog thecutlerychronicles.com