Thursday, May 17, 2012

Okonomiyaki in Osaka

Osaka became a wealthy food-trading center in the 16th century, and has been famously serious about its food ever since. The third-largest city in Japan, it’s also famously fast-paced, so it’s not surprising that its inhabitants have become fast-food aficionados. Of all the city’s superb snacklike creations, okonomiyaki is the favorite choice for food on the run.

Though it’s not such an obvious choice for tourists as Tokyo, and not even the locals would ever claim it was pretty, Osaka is a dynamic, characterful city whose inhabitants are famed throughout the country for their sense of humor, their slightly contrary nature, and their gluttony (the local dialect even has a word for this: kuidaore, which means “eat till you bust”).

In 1583, the founder of Osaka, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, built the original Osaka-jo castle on the site of the Ishiyama Honganji Temple, to act as the center of a new, unified Japan

Although Osaka doesn’t tend to feature on tourist itineraries – it is rather overshadowed in this part of Japan by Kyoto and Nara – the city has put some effort into developing a few tourist attractions. It has Osaka-jo castle, a mostly re-created 16th-century residence, and a magnificent aquarium – which has one of the very few whale sharks in captivity in the world – as well as several excellent museums and the gigantic Universal Studios Japan fun park. The shopping is especially epic, with massive malls and the longest shotengai (covered shopping arcade) in Japan. More interestingly, in recent years travelers from around the world have slowly come to realize that thanks to the locals’ famously insatiable appetites and ceaseless curiosity about new things, Osakan cuisine is more open to innovation and foreign influence than other Japanese regional foods. As a result, this city has a great deal to offer foodies, particularly in the realm of fast food. This is the city that invented conveyor-belt sushi and instant noodles (both in 1958, curiously), but today Osaka’s claim to fame lies in a triumvirate of unique fast foods: tako yaki, kushikatsu (see box, below left), and, most famously of all, okonomiyaki.
Literally meaning “make it how you like,” okonomiyaki usually features shredded cabbage, green onion, and pork (or shrimp or squid), all mixed together with a batter made from flour, dashi (stock), eggs, and, crucially for that chewy moistness, grated yam. This is then poured onto a hotplate where it is fried, flipped, fried some more, slathered with thick, dark, tangysweet sauce, and sprinkled with various toppings, including kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables), nori, Japanese mayonnaise, and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), before being cut into slices and devoured.
It’s a sociable dish, popular date food, and the definitive “must-have” in Osaka.

Best Places to Eat Okonomiyaki

Dotonbori Street

The search for fantastic okonomiyaki pulls everyone, inevitably, back to the Vegas-onthe- cheap glitz of Dotonbori – because this ceaselessly busy restaurant strip is its spiritual home. You’ll find many of Osaka’s 4,000 or so okonomiyaki restaurants here, most of them featuring a bewildering array of plastic models of okonomiyaki in their window to help you choose your variety of topping. In most places you’ll be given a bowl of batter and some ingredients so you can make up your own mix.
You then pour it on to a hotplate built into your table, flip the resulting thick disk with a metal spatula when one side is cooked, and finally divide it into pizza-style slices with the same spatula (the serving staff are usually happy to help okonomiyaki novices, of course). Brush with sauce, squirt with Japanese mayo, and sprinkle with nori, katsuobushi, kimchi, or whatever takes your fancy.
Dotonbori, Osaka; some restaurants open 24/7

Okonomiyaki has been described as a Japanese pancake, omelet, or tortilla – it’s a complete meal in a handy carry-out package

Also in Osaka
For a more refined take on the meal-in-one miracle that is okonomiyaki, head for the rather more dressy President Chibo (+81 6 6212 2211; moderate), also on Dotonbori. This five-floor temple to okonomiyaki opened in 1967 with the aim of taking the dish upmarket – hence the low lighting, marble counters, and chefs dressed in the French style. The okonomiyaki here are superlative, but purists might argue that having a chef cook them for you with tinkly music and attentive waiters is rather like having a haute cuisine hot dog.
Also in Japan
Both Tokyo and Hiroshima claim to have devised the ultimate incarnation of okonomiyaki. On Monja Street (inexpensive) in Tokyo’s Tsukishima district you can try the local version, called monjayaki, which has the same basic ingredients as the Osakan version but is much runnier and doesn’t shape up into quite such a pleasing patty. In Hiroshima, rather than mixing everything together, they prefer to layer their ingredients, sometimes adding natto (fermented soybean) or, more happily, a delicious, plump Hiroshima oyster. Try it in Okonomi Village (inexpensive), a futuristic building with three floors of Hiroshima-yaki (rather than okonomi-yaki) eateries.
A Day in Osaka
Osaka is the capital of Osaka Prefecture, and its busy beating heart. You’re as likely to come across fascinating sights and food while wandering the city as you are when visiting tourist sites, so don’t underestimate the value of a walking tour.
MORNING : If you can make the 5 AM start, the Osaka Municipal Wholesale Market is legendary, and rivals Tokyo’s Tsukiji for diversity and quality. Breakfast on a hearty bowl of oden (a kind of Japanese stew) upstairs in the cafeterias, then spend the rest of the morning at the Osaka Aquarium. Have lunch on the run, perhaps freshly cooked tako yaki from a stand on Dotonbori, the famous food street where (unusually for Japan) sidewalk snacking is positively encouraged.
AFTERNOON : Hit the shops of Minami (Osaka is divided into two main neighborhoods: Kita in the north, with the main station; and Minami in the south).
Walk Japan’s longest covered shopping street, the 1½-mile- (2.5-km-) long Tenjinbashi-suji arcade, or opt for the more upmarket Shinsaibashi.
 EVENING : Return to Dotonbori, the life and soul of Osaka’s 24/7 food party, which blazes with neon. Look for the giant crab – and eat okonomiyaki, of course.
Getting to Osaka
Osaka’s Kansai International Airport is one of Japan’s largest. The city has an extensive subway network as well as trams and buses.
Where to stay in Osaka
The Dotonbori Hotel (inexpensive) offers large, modern rooms in the center of Dotonbori.
Dojima Hotel (moderate) is an uber-cool boutique hotel conveniently located between Kita and Minami.
Imperial Hotel Osaka (expensive) is the sister hotel to the equally grand Imperial in Tokyo.
Features include its own golf driving range.

A cook at a food stand on Dotonbori demonstrates speed and skill, frying and flipping okonomiyaki to perfection

What Else to Eat
Along with okonomiyaki and instant noodles, Osaka has given the world other great fast foods.
Kushikatsu are breaded, deep-fried skewers of vegetables, seafood, and meat dipped in yet another addictive, meaty-sugary, ebony-colored sauce. Tako yaki are chunks of octopus cooked in a doughnut-like batter, slathered with brown sauce and katsuobushi flakes – classic Osakan street food. But perhaps the perfect symbol of the famed impatience of Osakans is kaiten or “conveyor-belt” sushi, which was invented in the city in the 1950s. Though the quality at a kaiten place is no match for a “proper” sushi restaurant, it does meet the average Osakan’s main criterion for a meal – speed of delivery. In fact, it is said that the conveyor belts are set to move faster in Osaka than they do in Tokyo.

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