Japan 2014…The Flavors Of Osaka

This is the last part of my Japan 2014 Pentalogy, and this time we go for the other thing the Japanese are known for, besides gadgets, manga and automobiles…what else, but food?!

Most of the memorable gastronomic experiences I’ve had in Osaka revolves around the Dotonbori area, the city’s liveliest stretch, which also happens to be its “food street”. And food street it is indeed, as restaurants one after the other will confuse you on which one to have on any give night. This is one place where you don’t go after food, rather, food goes after you.

Takoyaki

The real thing…authentic Osaka street side Takoyaki

The real thing…authentic Osaka street side Takoyaki

Takoyaki is a genuine creation of Osaka. The birth of the Takoyaki is traced back to an Osaka street vendor in the 1930’s. Today the Takoyaki has found its way to various corners of the world, where its ease of preparation makes selling it an appealing small business.

The best place to get a bit of the real deal is in no other than the food paradise of Dotonbori. Here numerous stalls, some right across each other, cook and sell freshly made takoyaki right on the pedestrian streetside, and sometimes there would be queues. Though I have tasted Takoyaki from elsewhere, what makes the real thing unique for me is the real large bit of chewy octopus (tako) that’s is middle of the ball.

Takoyaki store at Dotonbori

Takoyaki store at Dotonbori

Cooking Takoyaki at the street side.

Cooking Takoyaki at the street side.

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Kani

Kani Doraku at Dotonbori

Kani Doraku at Dotonbori

The Japanese love crabs (kani), and one of the most famous restaurants in Dotonbori is Kani Doraku, which has the iconic giant mechanical crab in its entrance. Kani is a bit expensive though, and we didn’t get to dine at Kani Doraku for that reason. Though most of Dotonbori is friendly to the backpacker-foodie kind of traveller, Kani Doraku is different from the rest in this regard. It definitely feels cosmopolitan, down to the maitre d’ that greets visitors at the entrance.

They do have an outdoor stall that sells grilled crab legs. Though it is expensive (two legs cost 700 Yen), the succulent meat of the crab legs, seasoned only by the flavors of the sea (it’s mildly salty, juicy and firmer than than regular crab dishes) is all worth a try.

Grilled Kani, at Kani Doraku

Grilled Kani, at Kani Doraku

The Grilled Kani stand at Dotonbori

The Grilled Kani stand at Dotonbori

Gyoza

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Though not really Japanese in origin (it’s a Chinese dish), the Gyoza is now an “adopted” Japanese dish and they’ve now mastered their own way of preparing it. Unlike the soft, steamed dumplings common across many Chinese restaurants, this Japanese take on the dumpling is both tender and crispy, owing to the cooking method of both steaming and frying, and the slightly thinner skin that’s almost like a wonton but not quite. The meat and vegetables that make up the dumpling’s core also has a distinct flavor and aroma, and blends well with a soy based dipping sauce.

Dotonbori is also a good place to get some Gyoza, where it is sold in many small restaurants, and even in ramen bars.

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Tempura

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Tempura ranks as among the very first Japanese dishes that my taste buds have come across, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Though not always cheap, tempura is one of the “safest” Japanese foods – meaning almost everyone can enjoy it – hence it is very ubiquitous, even within Japan. Though tempura is mostly associated with prawn, here they tempura almost anything edible, even a whole slice of a squash.

Tempura restaurants can be found all over Osaka, from the narrow alleys of Dotonbori, to the most upscale malls.

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A Tempura restaurant at Dotonbori

A Tempura restaurant at Dotonbori

Sushi

Tuna Sushi

Tuna Nigiri

One would definitely miss a lot if one goes to Japan without having a bite
of sushi. After all, there is nothing more Japanese than fresh seafood served with vinegared rice. Being an island country, Japan’s love affair with seafood is a tale as old as time, and here they like it as fresh as it can get.

Being the food paradise that it is, many restaurants in Dotonbori serve various kinds of sushi, with some serving mainly sushi and not much else. I only got to try tuna nigiri though, one of the safest and most ubiquitous among the seemingly infinite variety of sushi, but I was just too happy to finally tried sushi hand made from the land where it came from.

Eating sushi by the bar, in Dotonbori.

Eating sushi by the bar, in Dotonbori.

Ramen

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It’s the ultimate comfort food. Nothing beats a bowl of ramen on a cool evening. Though noodles soups are another import from China, the Japanese take their ramen seriously, producing a wide variety of what I consider as the most flavorful soups.

Here in Dotonbori, small ramen restaurants are abound. Many of them would barely fit more than 10 people, and some don’t even have seats. Yes, some people stand while slurping the noodles and soup. And one thing for sure is that they were always packed each time we were there. Shoyu (soy-based) and Shio (salt-based) soups appear to be the norm here, with a slice of pork chashu thrown in, and the amount of seasonings available in the tables/bars mean everyone can pretty much flavor their ramen as they wish.

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A ramen bar at Dotonbori

A ramen bar at Dotonbori

A ramen ordering machine.

A ramen ordering machine.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Another dish that’s an Osaka original, apart from the takoyaki, is the okonomiyaki, a mix of batter, vegetables, meat, seafood and what have you. It’s street food, and like all street food, what’s in it will vary slightly from place to place. Many have described it “Japanese pizza”, though I could barely agree. Pizza has dough, this one doesn’t. I consider it more of an asian pancake, something similar to the Korean Pajun, though being street food, it’s a bit more crude than the Pajun.

Perhaps my biggest gastronomic regret was not having tried Okonimiyaki from the streets of Dotonbori. There was just so much to try there that I just couldn’t leave room for it. Well, maybe next time. Where I did get to try it though was, of all places, the cafeteria of the Osaka Aquarium. Hardly a good sample of the real thing, though it wasn’t bad either. It was just like a regular cafeteria snack – precooked and reheated. Still, at least I could say I had Okonomiyaki with my two feet firmly planted in Osaka.

Soft Serve Ice Cream

Perfect for the hot summer

Perfect for the hot summer

It was in the beginning of summer when we were in Osaka, and the weather was hot and humid. Thankfully, it seems their cure to the summer heat is ice cream, and soft serve ice cream was being sold almost everywhere, especially in places where a lot of visitors go.

*All photos were taken June 2014, using an Olympus EPM-2.

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