Cheap Eats and Traditional Bites in Osaka, Japan

Osaka, Japan: a sprawling metropolis that makes up the country’s third largest city. Osaka is like Tokyo’s bolder (and grittier) little sister with an affinity for junk food and punk rock. I was planning on skipping Osaka altogether on this foodie trip, but was convinced to change my itinerary by a friend who had recently spent a year in the city teaching English. I’m glad I detoured to the city known as the culinary capital of Japan, famous for it’s foodie philosophy of Kuidaore which literally means “eat until you drop.” Intriguing, right?

We only had one night in Osaka, so we made a plan to meet up with various friends of my friend throughout an evening dedicated to the local fare. We headed straight for the action of Dōtonbori, the city’s most popular shopping and entertainment street, located in the Namba ward. This neon-lit area of Osaka is famous for it’s local snack foods like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kusikatsu.

The first, delicious destination of our food crawl was a takoyaki vendor. With a name literally meaning fried or grilled octopus, takoyaki are more commonly referred to in English as “octopus balls.” These dumplings are made from a batter (similar to a pancake) with a filling of tender octopus pieces, pickled ginger and green onion. They are fried on a special cast-iron pan which retains the round shape of the dumplings.

Like any great junk food, takoyaki balls are best served with a variety of toppings, such as ponzu, mayonnaise, and a heaping pile of bonito flakes.

Takoyaki from a Street Vendor in Osaka, Japan

Takoyaki from an Osaka street vendor

Our next stop was at a well-known okonomiyaki restaurant called Tombe. The best way to describe okonomiyaki is: savory pancakes, piled with a wild mix of ingredients, cooked on the tabletop.

A batter made from flour, water, eggs, yams, and cabbage (plus the ordered mix of ingredients) is poured onto the sizzling iron tabletop. We sampled some of the more popular combinations of ingredients, like bacon/cheese/octopus and mushroom/cartilage/scallion. When the pancakes were cooked through, they were generously topped with bonito flakes, okonomiyaki sauce (a bit like a thick, brown Worcestershire sauce), and mayonnaise.

Another fun use of the tabletop grill (watch those elbows!) is to make yakisoba, or fried noodles. Here, we sampled chicken yakisoba topped with a fried egg. Completely delicious and obviously bad for you – the perfect snack food!

Our final dinner stop was at a traditional Kushikatsu eatery. Unlike Tokyo, where battered meats and vegetables are served in a light tempura, these skewered treats are dipped in egg, flour and panko and deep fried. Kushikatsu can be made with a variety of ingredients –  meats, seafood, and vegetables. Because the vats of sauce on the bar are communal, there are rules: NO double dipping!

We tried a range of fried items: yams, mushrooms, onions, cheese, chicken skin, eel and pork. Of course, the Japanese thing to do is to wash it all down with giant mugs of local beer.

The final stop of the evening was for conversation and sake at a local izakaya, or gastropub, popular with Japanese salarymen. Typically a few small dishes are ordered to accompany any alcoholic beverages. This is where I experienced one of my favorite flavors of Japan, in a small dish called takowasa, which literally translates to octopus-wasabi.

A perfect accompaniment to a cold glass of sake, takowasa is a delicious mixture of tender octopus sashimi marinated in a shockingly bold wasabi sauce. Though I made it a point to look for it, I was never able to find the dish again in Japan. This is reason alone to return to the food-fabulous city of Osaka, Japan.

2010 Mileage Total: 98981

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