Dinner by the Dotonbori: The Culinary Delights of Osaka
Osaka is one of Japan’s largest cities. This vast metropolis spans a massive area that, in a Japanese context, is eclipsed only by Tokyo and Yokohama in its size and scale.
However, Osaka often does not fare so favourably when compared to these and indeed other cities such as Kyoto and Kobe when it comes to attracting tourists.
However, having lived in Osaka for more than 2 years now, I think the place doesn’t deserve such criticism. Osaka has a unique character and an amazing diversity of restaurants and bars just crying out to be explored.
So today, please allow me to be your guide as we do just that.
Let’s take a tour of the culinary delights and unique charms of this city I am proud to call my home.
Like many places in Japan, Osaka has a number of local dishes with a flavor and texture unique to the city. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the joys of okonomiyaki in my previous posts, so I won’t repeat myself, but needless to say, this is a dish all visitors to the city must sample at least once.
However, Osaka’s signature dish is undoubtedly Takoyaki. These small balls of octopus, wrapped in a soft, fluffy batter and covered in a rich, sweet sauce, topped off with dried flakes of shredded fish is the perfect snack after a busy day at work.
With stalls to be found all over the city, you are never too far away from some Takoyaki. The English have their donner kebabs, Americans have their pizza and Taco Bell, but in Osaka it is Takoyaki that many locals and foreigners alike choose for their post-pub consumable.
Kushikatsu is another delicious local dish that should be savoured during your time in Osaka. It is as tasty as it is simple. Basically Kushikatsu is meat or vegetables on skewers deep fried. As if that wasn’t enough to set the alarm bells ringing for the calorie conscious, prior to eating the skewer must also be dipped into a thick, sweet, tangy sauce not to dissimilar to the brown sauce that has long been a staple of British fish and chip shops.
If you go to a kushikatsu restaurant there is one important rule you must follow. The katsu sauce is usually shared among several people from a large central tray on the table. For reasons of hygiene, it is considered good manners to dip each skewer in the sauce only once. Also, do not take a bite out of your skewer before dipping it. Not only does this spread your germs, it is also considered quite rude.
Osaka’s native foods are one of the cities most charming draws to newcomers. However, even if you’re not really into Japanese food, fret not, because Osaka also has plenty to offer those looking for something a little more international.
Unlike a number of other smaller cities in Japan, Osaka has a burgeoning foreign population, with high concentrations of Koreans and Chinese in particular. This diversity has spawned a number of fantastic restaurants with a distinctive foreign flavor.
Anyone who loves Yakiniku (Korean Barbecue) should make sure to visit the Tsuruhashi district. Tsuruhashi is on the main JR Osaka loop line and sits about 20 minutes from Osaka station and about 10 minutes from the South Osaka hub station of Tennoji.
Here you will find all manner of barbecue restaurants serving food that is both delicious and very competitively priced. Be sure to keep a look out for the various “Tabehodai” deals. Tabehodai is Japanese for “all you can eat”. It basically means that you can order as much food as you like for a flat fee (usually in the region of 3 or 4000 yen) but there is a time limit, usually 2 or 3 hours depending on the venue.
In many cases the restaurant will also offer a “Nomihodai” (all you can drink) option as well for an additional 1000 yen or so. If you like a drink then I recommend doing this, as the various meats are delicious but the combination of spice and salt used in many of the seasonings will have you working your way through more glasses of beer than you may have anticipated. A beer in these places will usually set you back around 400 yen or so, and unlike many other countries, in a number of restaurants in Japan soft drinks are often more or less the same price as alcohol, so if you’re the kind of person who is likely to drink more than 2 drinks in 3 hours then Nomihodai is the best option.
In some cases, an alcohol free nomihodai menu may be offered at around half the price of the alcoholic one.
As I said previously, in addition to the Korean quarter, Osaka also has a number of excellent Chinese restaurants to enjoy. Unlike the Koreans however, the Chinese aren’t really confined to one single area and you can find Chinese restaurants dotted all over the city. If you’re new to Japan look out for these Kanji characters: (中華料理) These literally mean Chinese cuisine, and will help you sort out the Chinese food from the Japanese.
If you’re going to try Chinese food in Osaka, I especially recommend the Mabu Dofu. Mabu Dofu is a soft tofu served in a rich and spicy sauce best enjoyed with boiled rice. It is a delicious dish and easy to find on the menu given its distinctive reddish brown colour. In some places the mabu dofu can be quite fiery and it’s certainly not a dish for those who lack the palette for spicy food.
The important thing to remember about Chinese food though is that it will taste quite different from what you may have tasted in China itself. If you’ve ever eaten Chinese food in multiple countries as I have then you’ll know that one thing the Chinese are very good at is adapting their cuisine to local tastes. I find dishes in Japan to be considerably sweeter and with more vegetables than similar dishes in the UK or in Hong Kong.
I could easily write a thousand more words about the amazing range of foods available in Osaka, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises that await you here. And besides, all this writing is making me hungry. Takoyaki anyone?