A Japanese saying goes:
Kyotoites wear clothes until they drop
Tokyoites wear shoes until they drop
Osakans eat until they drop
*some use Kobe（神戸） as the city that wears shoes until they drop
Fair enough to say that if a city’s citizens are known for eating until they drop, then said city must be a gastronomic metropolis. And if that saying didn’t convince you, Osaka also has a nickname:
tenka no daidokoro
The Nation’s Kitchen
About Osaka City
Osaka is one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and one of only two urban prefectures (the other is Kyoto). Therefore it is suffixed with 府 rather than 県 (which signifies a normal prefecture). The capital of the Osaka prefecture (大阪府・おおさかふ) is the eponymous Osaka City (大阪市・おおさかし). References to ‘Osaka’ in a language other than Japanese tends to refer to the city rather than the prefecture. Henceforth in this post, ‘Osaka’ refers to the city.
(Rather confusing, no? Like how the capital of Singapore is Singapore. I haven’t come across it much in European and Western countries; but often a prefecture in Japan will have a city of the same name. As if a tonal and homophonic language isn’t head-spinning enough!)
Osaka is Japan’s second largest city, and the nation’s food and drink capital. You could argue this, but it’d be hard against a city that is known as the Nation’s Kitchen, among other things). To digress, this nickname was coined during the Edo period, when Osaka served as the rice hub for Japan. As rice is the staple grain for Japan, this was an extremely prestigious role. Today, 天下の台所 is more a reference to the numerous and varied food options available in Osaka.
Now how did Osaka become so food-orientated? Delving into it’s history shows a synergistic combination of factors.
Osaka was developed into a port city during the Kofun period (250 AD – 538 AD). This connected Osaka with the western regions of Japan. Sometime during the 5th century, when Chinese culture was introduced to Japan, Osaka became the centre for politics and culture. During the 7th century, Osaka became the first capital of Japan.
These events had a major impact on trade and activity that flowed in and out of Osaka. Being the centre of politics and culture attracted many people to Osaka, so that they could talk and discuss. Being one of Japan’s first port hubs increased trade and merchant activity, hence paving the way for Osaka’s reputation as a mercantile city.
Although the capital moved to Nara, then Kyoto, Osaka retained its position as nucleus of trade, and political and cultural discussion. In 1583, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a respected samurai and politician) chose to base himself in Osaka, building the famous Osaka Castle, and strengthening the political and economical status of the city. Osaka’s growth only continued through the years and centuries and it soon became an indispensable part of managing Japan economy through trade and distribution.
With so much human activity and exchange of information, it is not surprising that Osakans became more open-minded, business-centric and entrepreneurial than people elsewhere in the nation. They had access to a wider range of goods and opinions.
During the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, Osaka underwent rapid industralisation. This attracted many immigrants to both the city and prefecture, and still today the Osaka prefecture has a relatively large population of immigrants and non-Japanese (approximately 210,000 or nearly 10% of all registered non-Japanese). The size and status of Osaka also attracts visitors from all around the world. This means you can find almost any cuisine in Osaka. Korean food is particularly good as the Korean population is relatively large here as well.
Osaka’s history as the centre of trade, politics, culture and economy gave it the people, activity and subsequent economic stimulus required to develop any city into a sprawling metropolis. But for it to develop specifically into a food hub, thanks is owed to its superb location.
The quality of ingredients is an important factor in Japanese cuisine. Japanese cuisine holds the tenets of freshness, seasonality, and variation. Osaka’s location gives it access to a wide range of ingredients. Osaka is located near the centre of the Japanese archipelago. This results in a mild climate and fertile lands, which facilitates growing crop and raising livestock. In addition, the Yodo river flowing north-south through the prefecture provided a steady source of fresh water. The west side of Osaka opens to Osaka Bay, where wild seafood is in abundance. These ideal environmental factors meant Osaka has access to a wide range of ingredients which don’t have to travel far after harvesting. Additionally, being a port city introduced ingredients from all over Japan as well as internationally. Truly, the pantry of The Nation’s Kitchen is well-stocked.
Osaka’s epicurean reputation also owes thanks to the two cities of Sakai and Semba, both located in the Osaka prefecture.
Sakai is a major production centre for cooking knives and cutlery. If a chef is without a good knife, he or she cannot turn even the best ingredients into a tasteful dish. The deba-bouchou (出刃包丁), a broad-bladed knife primarily used to prepare fish, and usuba-bouchou (薄刃包丁), a smaller blade used to prepare vegetables, knives essential in any good cook’s arsenal were first manufactured in Sakai during the Genroku period (1688-1704).
Semba’s role was in the provision of customers. Good food cannot develop unless there are customer who appreciate it. The incentive of attracting and keeping well-paying customers encourage chefs to improve their skills. Semba had a large merchant population. These merchants would take their clients and customers out to restaurants to eat and talk business.
‘Eat Until You Drop’
食い倒れ (kuidaore) is Osaka’s unofficial motto.
食う (kuu) means ‘to eat’
倒れ (daore) means ‘bad debt’ or ‘collapse’
倒れる (daoreru) means ‘to fall, drop, or collapse’
So literally it means ‘to eat until you drop’ or ‘eat until you go bankrupt’.
Most Osakans don’t run themselves bankrupt over food.Neither does this saying mean that Osakans prefer expensive, gourmet food. In fact many of their famous, indigenous dishes (like takoyaki (たこ焼き) and okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)) are cheap, filling, and have humble roots. Rather, this saying is used to express the Osakans’ love, enthusiasm, appreciation, and (healthy) obsession with food, and how they are much more willing to spend money on food than other things.
食い倒れ is a large part of Osaka’s pop culture, best represented by くいだおれ太郎 (kuidaore-tarou). Kuidaore-Tarou (aka: Taro) is a large, mechanical boy drummer wearing red and white striped clothes reminiscent of a clown’s. Taro lives in the heart of Dotonbori, Osaka’s famous gastronomical street. He is one of the most popular landmarks in Dotonbori. Many people have made it a ritual to take a photo with Taro to mark the beginning of their food-eating adventures through Dotonbori. Taro was originally a marketing gimmick for a restaurant called Cui-Daore. He first appreared in 1950 and quickly became a local landmark. When the restaurant closed in 2008, Taro was rented out to various festivals throughout Japan for several years before being semi-permanently placed in the lobby of the Nakaza Kuidaore Building.
There are two ingredients that make up the foundation of indigenous Osaka cuisine:
- Dashi (だし): soup stock, traditionally made with katsuobushi and konbu (read more about dashi here)
- Usukuchi-shouyu (薄口醤油): light soy sauce
Good dashi is the main reason Osaka cuisine is renowned for its fine flavours. For perspective, kitsune-udon is a noodle dish that originated in Osaka but is now widespread throughout Japan. However, the kitsune-udon is particularly good in Osaka because of how Osakans prepare the dashi. Making good quality stock is relatively easier in Osaka – being a port city grants them access to quality ingredients all over Japan (e.g.: high-grade ma-konbu from Hokkaido). Osaka Bay also provides an abundance of fish that can be dried and used to make dashi. Dried sardines/anchovies, called niboshi (煮干し) are popular because they are readily available in the Bay and, hence, affordable.
Usukuchi-shouyu is a soy sauce that is lighter in colour and aroma, rather calories. It contains more salt than koikuchi-shouyu (濃い口醤油) – dark soy sauce – and it also has amazake (甘酒) – sweet rice alcohol – which provides a richer flavour. Osakans prefer usukuchi-shouyu because the lighter colour and aroma helps preserve the natural flavours and colours of the ingredients. This improves the overall look and flavour of the final dish.
Osakans are also fond of their sauces, especially their brown sauces. Their most well-known dishes have eponymous sauces, created just for that dish: takoyaki sauce, okonomiyaki sauce, kushikatsu sauce, etc. Each cook will have their own recipe and claim that theirs is the best of the lot. Mayonnaise is another favourite. But Japanese mayonnaise, mind you. It has a thicker texture and sweeter flavour than Western mayo. You will see many indigenous dishes topped off with a sauce or two.
Many Osakan dishes are street food – common ingredients, cheap, quick, filling, and cooked in ways that invoke ‘comfort food’ images (think roasting, broiling, crumbing, and deep-frying). They are warm, boisterous, and unpretentious. So it is not surprising that Osaka boasts an izakaya and yatai culture. Izakaya (居酒屋) are informal small pubs that serve finger food alongside an extensive alcohol list. They are popular with businesspeople who have clocked-off for the day. Yatai (屋台) are movable street food stands, usually specialising in one dish. They set up shop in the early evening and leave once service is over. The kitchen is usually in the middle, with customers sitting all around. One of the best meals you can have in Osaka is likely to come from an izakaya or yatai, rather than a fancy 5-star restaurant.
Osaka is pretty much synonymous with takoyaki and okonomiyaki. And with good reason. Both dishes have a long history and became popular through the entrepreneurial Osaka spirit. And as mentioned before, many of Osaka’s other famous dishes have some sort of -yaki (焼き) (i.e.: grilled, roasted, BBQ-ed, broiled, baked or fried) element to them.
Here is a list of well known, laymen’s Osakan dishes (aka: street food!):
- Takoyaki (たこ焼き): octopus balls
- Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き): savoury pancake
- Kushikatsu (串カツ): battered and deep-fried skewers of meat
- Kitsune-udon (狐うどん): udon noodle soup with abura-age (油揚げ) – deep-fried tofu pouch
- Kayaku-gohan (加薬ご飯): fried rice containing carrot, burdock root, abura-age, konnyaku, shiitake, and chicken
- Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き): a style of cooking where food is cooked on an iron griddle in front of the customer
- Ikayaki (イカ焼き): squid-filled crepes; egg is sometimes added (called derayaki (デラ焼き)); it is flattened and cooked between two iron plates (in other regions of Japan, ikayaki refers to skewered grilled squid with a brown sauce)
But for as many street food that exist in Osakan cuisine, there is an equal number of refined dishes that epitomise the major tenets of traditional Japanese cuisine: freshness, simplicity, and elegance. Kappou (割烹) is a style of traditional Japanese cuisine which originated in Osaka over a century ago. If you go to a kappou restaurant, expect a prix-fix or degustation menu. The procession of dishes may include:
- Hako-zushi (箱寿司): lit. “box sushi”; this sushi is made by layering slices of fish and rice in a box, pressing down, and then slicing into bite-sized pieces
- Senba-jiru (船場汁): mackerel soup; Senba is a neighbourhood in Osaka
- Odamaki-mushi (小田巻蒸し): steamed savoury egg custard with udon (aka: a chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し) with udon)
- Hansuke-nabe (半助鍋): eel-head soup
- Hamo no bainiku-ae (鱧の梅肉和え): pike conger with sour plum sauce
- Udon-suki (饂飩鋤): seafood and vegetables cooked sukiyaki-style and served with udon and a light broth
- Tessa (テッサ): paper-thin slices of raw globefish or pufferfish; this is known as fugu (河豚) elsewhere; tessa also means ‘gun’ in the Osakan dialect – a fitting name for a Russian roulette-esque dish!
Doutonbori (道頓堀) is Osaka’s most famous entertainment and food precinct. It refers to both the Dotonbori Canal and Dotonbori Street in Osaka’s Namba district. It is unpretentious and showy, with flashing neon lights, large signage, and larger-than-life props adorning the sides of Dotonbori’s buildings. It is a hugely popular tourist destination, so expect to pay premium prices for food here. Still, one cannot come to Osaka for food and not visit this famous area, with its lattice of narrow streets lined with restaurants, bars, shops, and theatres.
Dotonbori started out as an entertainment district. Kabuki and manzai were particularly popular. Restaurants and bars started to pop up in order to cater for the audiences. Theatre culture declined rapidly in modern times, and although there are still several theatres in Dotonbori, nowadays it is more known as a gastronomical playground.
Like Las Vegas and Times Square, you’ll know you’re in Dotonbori when you see a ostentatious landmark, such as one of the following:
- The Glico Running Man billboard
- The Kani Doraku crab
- The Zubora-ya pufferfish lantern
- The sneering face of Kushikatsu Daruma’s mascot
Osaka’s Claim to Food Fame
Combine a city that has been a veritable trade hub since ancient times, and who’s population devotes as much attention to business as they do food, and you get some of the greatest contributions to food culture.
Instant Ramen and Cup Noodles
The humble staple of cash-strapped university students and time-poor workers. The wavy, compacted block of wavy yellow noodles and their accompanying packets of seasoning are a familiar childhood memory for many (along with stern warnings from parents not to eat the bloody things raw because they’ll cook in your stomach…or maybe that was just particular to my childhood…). Yes, this budget friendly, taste friendly, and not-so health friendly food item was invented in Osaka.
Insutanto-raamen, or sokuseki-raamen (インスタントラーメン・即席ラーメン) was invented by Momofuku Ando in 1958. Ando was actually a Tawainese born to the name Go Pek-Hok. After WWII, he decided to become a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Momofuku Ando. He based himself in Osaka, where in 1948 he started his company, Nissin (which today remains one of the largest manufacturers of instant ramen in the world). Nissin started out as a salt manufacturer. During this period, the Japanese government was encouraging its citizens to eat bread and wheat, as this was what the Americans sent over to help with Japan’s post-war food shortages. Ando thought the Japanese people would much rather eat noodles and set off to create it with wheat flour. After much experimentation, his breakthrough came when he used tempura oil to fry a cake of noodles. The oil created tiny holes throughout the noodle. This created more surface area for the hot water to cook the noodles, thus expediting the process. The first instant ramen was sold for 35 yen. Ironically this was considered expensive at the time – the same amount could get you around 6 servings of udon or soba. Still, the rich enjoyed the convenience.
Ando created the cup noodle in 1971. By this time the Japanese yen was stronger, and the noodles were cheaper to make. Unlike his first instant ramen, the cup noodle was a groundbreaking success due to its convenience, taste, and affordability.
Kaiten-zushi (回転寿司) is a restaurant where plates of sushi are placed on a conveyor belt that runs past all the seats. As the plates glide along, customers pick out the ones they want. In English these restaurants are commonly known as “sushi train restaurants” or “conveyor belt sushi restaurants”. Kaiten (回転) means “rotation”.
The genius in this is that customers serve themselves and a proper eye on turnover keeps the sushi relatively fresh. There is also the fun-factor – who wouldn’t want to try a restaurant like this at least once. You can eat at your own pace, and you don’t have to wait for food. From the business’ point of view, they can serve many more customers at a lower price point, attract customers to dine, and encourage customers to spend more (you know you want that tempting plate of aburi that’s gliding past you…better snatch it before someone else does).
With all these innovative factors, it’s no surprise that kaiten-zushi was invented by an Osakan. Yoshiaki Shiraishi opened the first kaiten-zushi restaurant, called Mawaru Genroku-Zushi (廻る元祿寿司), in the 1958. Shiraishi needed a way to serve his customers quickly while still keeping operating costs down. He came up with the idea of a conveyor belt after watching the beer production line at the Asahi factory. While his restaurant proved popular from the onset, his conveyor belt invention experienced a boom on both the national and international market when he showcased it at the Osaka World Expo in 1970.
You see them all over Japan – rows and rows of food displayed outside restaurants that look too good to eat…as they should be because they’re 100% plastic. These food replicas are called shokuhin-sanpuru (食品サンプル) – lit: food item samples – or sanpuru for short.
They are a common sight in Japan, with colourful displays outside many restaurants. They are an invaluable help to both foreigners who know little or no Japanese, and to Japanese who know little about foreign food. Since the replicas are highly accurate, one needs only to point. And although the boom in foreigners and foreign food in the mid to late 20th century contributed to the prevalence of sanpuru, they actually existed before this.
The first sanpuru was made by Nishio Soujiro in 1917, and then widely used in Tokyo in the 1920s when there was an increase in eating out. People were still unused to eating out, so the models provided a helpful visual guide.
But the sanpuru‘s surge in popularity is credited to Iwasaki Takizo. Takizo moved to Osaka in 1926 to pursue greater opportunities. In 1932, he created his first sanpuru out of wax – omurice. There are varying stories as to how this happened. Some say the idea came to him while he was eating out and suddenly thought of the plastic fruits and vegetables used in schools to teach children about good nutrition. Others say he was behind on his electricity bills, resorted to candles, and observed how patterns were perfectly imprinted onto melted wax. Still others say that one day he let the wax drip onto water and saw it form into the shape of a beautiful flower. In any case, he created his company, Iwasaki-bei, which is still in operation today (and reportedly still owns 60-70% of the market for food replicas).
In the 1970s, wax was replaced with plastic, which was more durable and not prone to melting in heat or exposed sunlight. And despite the advances in mass production, sanpuru are still mainly hand-crafted. Many sanpuru manufacturers pride themselves on this fact, and some replicas are made using the same techniques as would be used to make the actual food itself.
For something that is a representation of the real McCoy, sanpuru are actually much dearer than their edible counterparts. A replica of a four piece sushi set can set you back hundreds of dollars!
So there you have it. From its history to its famous dishes, and the slew of groundbreaking inventions in the area of food and drink, it is hard to argue why the title of “The Nation’s Kitchen” should be given to a city other than Osaka.
Whew, all this talk about food…I better go grab something to eat.
All for research purposes, of course.
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