Yaki! Yaki! Yaki!
Grill! Broil! Roast!
Yell this out with all the enthusiasm of football fans and it sounds pretty cool. The translation might not have the same ring to it but…who am I kidding? Why wouldn’t you get excited about food that’d been roasted, grilled, broiled, baked, toasted, or when you go waaaaaaaay back, cooked over an open fire?
Bar-Be-Que! Bar-Be-Que! Bar-Be-Que!
The thing is, many foods taste much better when you expose them to heat, particularly intense heat that has the food cooked in mere minutes, if not one minute. While Osaka boasts an impressive range of indigenous dishes, the ones that are the most famous, most well-known, and most loved are dishes that have been yaki-ed. In fact, you’ll soon see that many of these dishes have yaki in their names. And that yaki dishes are generally quick to cook, unpretentious, cheap, filling, meaty, carby, and universally loved.
Takoyaki literally translates as ‘grilled octopus’ (tako = octopus), which is a somewhat of a misnomer. You might have imagined a piece of grilled octopus, perhaps on a stick; but takoyaki are actually octopus balls. But not like, you know, literally.
(…that might not be a very good name to describe it with either…)
Anyway, takoyaki are spherical rounds of wheat batter with diced octopus inside, and perhaps some cabbage and spring onions. They are garnished with a sweet-salty brown sauce (usually a secret recipe of the cook), Japanese mayonnaise, aonori (青のり – powdered green seaweed), beni-shouga (紅生姜 – red pickled ginger), and kezuribushi (削り節 – shaved bonito flakes). While different establishments may have different combinations for garnishes, the kezuribushi is common among them all. It wouldn’t be takoyaki without these flakes dancing on the heat emanating off the freshly cooked batter-balls.
History of Takoyaki
Takoyaki was invented in Osaka in 1935, but the roots of this dish stretch as far back to the 1600s. This was when French cuisine was introduced to Japan, along with wheat and the method of battering and frying food.
Takoyaki first started out as a dish called choboyaki (チョボ焼き). This appeared during the Taisho era (1912-1926). The name comes from the onomatopoeia for ‘drop-drop’ – chobo-chobo チョボチョボ – for the way the batter was dropped onto a cast-iron girdle.
A little while later, vendors started to add ‘leftover’ ingredients to choboyaki, such as meat sinew, beans, and konnyaku. (Osaka has a large mottainai (勿体無い) culture – this is a where everything is used and nothing is wasted). This resulted in a larger ball of batter, and it was given the name rajioyaki (ラジオ焼き). There are two theories on how this dish got it’s name: the first is that it was named after the radio, the most popular mechanical invention at that time; the second is that it resembled a volume knob on a radio. As sauce wasn’t widespread at that time, neither choboyaki nor rajioyaki were served with any.
It was in 1935 that Endo Tomekichi invented the takoyaki as it is known today. Like any good invention, there are several different accounts of exactly how Endo invented takoyaki. One account says that Endo came from his hometown in Akashi to visit Osaka. He came across a stall selling rajioyaki and told the vendor that in Akashi, they used octopus instead of meat. Another says that Endo was a choboyaki vendor in Osaka when in 1935, he increased the flavouring of in the batter and added pieces of octopus, which were plentiful. And yet another says that Endo got his idea after sampling akashiyaki (明石焼き), a dish local to the city of Akashi and similar to choboyaki, rajioyaki, and takoyaki. Endo kept the use of octopus, but changed the soft eggy akashiyaki batter to a denser, wheat-flour based one. Back when Endo first invented it, takoyaki was served without any sauces or garnishes. Some establishments still offer takoyaki in this manner, which they call suyaki (素焼き).
Takoyaki versus Akashiyaki
These two dishes are similar in that they are both octopus balls – where pieces of octopus are enclosed in a batter of some description. Takoyaki is the louder of the two, with its durable wheat batter, Osaka hometown, and worldwide recognition. Other ingredients can be added with the octopus, or in recent times, instead of octopus (think vegetarian takoyaki – even though it’s an oxymoron, like ‘vegetarian’ bacon. But hey, pigs eat…grains and plant-y stuff…yeah?).
On the other hand, akashiyaki is difficult to find outside Akashi. The batter has a higher proportion of egg, so the texture is much softer and looser than takoyaki. Octopus, and only octopus, is put inside. It is served with soup – sometimes the akashiyaki is served in the soup, or the soup is served on the side. Most akashiyaki is made with Futami octopus, which is the local octopus. It has a longer history than takoyaki, and is called tamagoyaki (卵焼き – literally ‘grilled egg’) by the locals.
The contrast between the qualities of these two dishes is really quite large. Takoyaki is masculine; akashiyaki is feminine. Both are equally delicious, and any avid foodie should definitely find their way out of the takoyaki craze and into the tranquility of akashiyaki.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t try takoyaki. Venture to Osaka’s Dotonbori precinct, where you’ll find the most takoyaki stalls and restaurants crammed into any one area!
A few years ago I was invited to a birthday dinner party at an Argentinian asado restaurant. Asado is a South American cultural tradition – where large hunks of meat are slowly grilled and roasted over hot coals. The menu proudly featured all kinds meats, the website proclaimed their mastery of meats, and they even had an anthropomorphic ox dressed in black tie as their mascot. You’d think that would’ve been a hint for the host choose another restaurant…as they invited a vegetarian.
(The look on the wait staff’s faces when asked for a vegetarian menu though…priceless).
All could’ve been avoided if they had chosen an okonomiyaki restaurant (even though there’s really none where I live). Okonomiyaki is often described as ‘Japanese pizza’, when it more resembles a thick, dense savoury pancake stuffed with whatever ingredients the customer requests. Okonomiyaki is a crowd pleaser because each person can choose what ingredients they would like in theirs. Okonomi (お好み) means ‘choice; preference; as you like’ – thus okonomiyaki means ‘grilled as you like’.
The batter is made from wheat flour, egg, water (and/or dashi), and a unique root vegetable called yamaimo (山芋). Yamaimo can be translated as Japanese mountain yam (it’s botanical name is dioscorea japonica). It has a slippery and sticky texture, which when grated into an okonomiyaki batter, gives the resultant pancake a pleasant chewy texture. Some use nagaimo (長芋 – Chinese yam; dioscorea polystachya) instead for a similar result. And although you can add whatever ingredients you like, common and popular are cabbage and slices of pork belly.
Okonomiyaki are often cooked in front of you on a hot plate. They are served with the establishment’s own okonomiyaki sauce (a sweet brown sauce), mayonnaise, aonori, and kezuribushi. If you’re in an establishment where you eat directly off the hotplate, the chef will usually slide your order to you when it is a smidge off being fully cooked. This is because while you’re eating the outside, the hotplate will finish cooking off the centre.
Okonomiyaki is very versatile. You can have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as a snack. It is very much a food for the everyday people; quite different from the dish it originated from.
History of Okonomiyaki
Historians think the origins of okonomiyaki stemmed from a dish prepared by the famed Sen no Rikyu. Sometime during the Azuchi-Momoyama era (1573-1603), Sen no Rikyu created a grilled wheat flour dish to serve as part of a tea ceremony meal. It was essentially a rolled up crepe: wheat flour batter spread on a grill, brushed with miso, and sprinkled with poppy seeds and sugar before being rolled up. This dish was called funoyaki (麩の焼き) or fuyaki (麩焼き) – fu (麩) means ‘wheat gluten’. Funayaki was also served at autumn Buddhist ceremonies, as the rolled-up dish looked like a sutra scroll.
Funayaki remained unchanged until near the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). The miso was replaced with a sweet red bean paste called nerian (練餡 – 練 = to knead, 餡 = red bean paste). This made the dish even sweeter and it was renamed sukesouyaki (助惣焼き).
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), sukesouyaki inspired two new savoury dishes, both of which were invented in Tokyo: monjayaki (もんじゃ焼き) and dondonyaki (どんどん焼き). Monjayaki came first – it is a pan fried batter with various ingredients mixed in, but the batter is more liquid than okonomiyaki. Because of this characteristic, monjayaki couldn’t be eaten on the go. Eventually someone created dondonyaki to remedy this.
Dondonyaki is also a pan-fried batter dish, but the batter is harder. This dish is rolled up on a stick, and was (and still is) quite popular at festivals where the sonorous beat of the taiko (a traditional Japanese drum) resonated through the air. The onomatopoeia of a taiko in Japanese is don-don-don – hence the name.
Both monjayaki and dondonyaki were considered ‘sometimes’ food up until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1932. This caused food shortages in the Tokyo area. The relative availability of wheat and relative unavailability of rice, proteins and vegetables elevated both yaki-dished to staples (and no doubt increased their exposure to more people). Their omnipresence in the Kanto area caused the idea of the dish to migrate down to the Kansai region.
The people in Kansai removed the stick element form dondonyaki, turning it back into a stationary dish. They made it flatter, added green onion, and topped it with Worcestershire sauce. It was called issen-youshoku (一銭洋食) – literally ‘one sen* Western food’ – as a form of self advertisement on its affordability, and it’s Westernness (back then, to turn anything into a Western dish, it was a case of ‘just add Worcestershire’). Other variants of the name include: issen-yaki (一銭焼き) or issen-teishoku (一銭定食).
*a sen (銭) is 1/100th of a yen
Later on, a variant called betayaki (ベタ焼き) was created in Kyoto. Beta means ‘flat’ in the Kansai dialect. People added leftover ingredients like beans, konnyaku, and soy sauce to the batter. If this sounds like something you read further up, you’re right. Around the same time the precursor for takoyaki – rajioyaki – was invented with the same mottainai (勿体無い – waste not want not) mentality. Sometimes betayaki, choboyaki, and issen-youshoku (and all its variants) were used interchangeably.
Around the beginning of the Showa era (1926-1989) the people of the Hyogo prefecture took the idea of issen-youshoku and created nikuten (にくてん), the closest relative to okonomiyaki. The flour batter is topped with a bunch of ingredients and fried in a pan. The ingredients differ between areas; in Kobe they tend to use been tendon and konnyaku. The name nikuten comprises of niku for ‘meat’, and ten for which could represent:
- Tenkasu (天かす): the crunchy bits of tenpura batter left over in the oil which are used in the nikuten batter
- Ten (転): meaning ‘to flip, as you flip the batter in the pan, or
- Tenpura (天ぷら): a dish of lightly battered, deep-fried seafood and vegetables – because nikuten uses a lot of oil like tempura does.
Okonomiyaki was invented in Osaka after WWII. Post-war, food was scarce and food distribution was unorganised. Wheat flour was sent over from America as relief, which boosted the consumption and popularity of flour-based dishes like issen-youshoku. But the people couldn’t live off issen-youshoku as it was. They had to add something to bulk it up. This ingredient was cabbage. Cabbage was cheap and plentiful all year round, so it was copiously added. And since other ingredients were scarce, people just started to add whatever they had on hand to the cabbage-filled batter to make it as nutritious as possible. Due to this, the name changed to konomiyaki (where konomi (好み) means ‘liking; choice’) – the honorific ‘o’ (お/御) was later added to make it more polite.
Beef had a renaissance during the Meiji Restoration, but the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, and WWII put a stop to mainstream beef consumption. Beef was given only to soldiers. For the common populace pork was pushed into the limelight. As all kinds of meat were scarce and expensive post WWII, some okonomiyaki vendors started to add thin slices of ‘pork’ to their dish in order to sell at higher prices. I say ‘pork’ because it is entirely possible that some unscrupulous vendors secretly used dog and cat meat instead. No one is quite sure when egg was added to the batter, but it would have to be well after the end of WWII, as eggs were still an expensive commodity before this.
As the years went by, Osakans created a special sweet brown sauce to top their okonomiyakis. They also began to cook and serve in front of the customer. The theatre and novelty involved in this imbued okonomiyaki establishments, and okonomiyakis themselves, with the qualities of ‘fun’, ‘casual’, and ‘light-hearted’. It was a place you went and a thing you ate if you wanted to forget about life’s troubles for a moment.
Styles of Okonomiyaki
Yup. Although it is okonomi (as you like), there are two styles that have cemented themselves as the big kahunas in the okonomiyaki realm.
Okonomiyaki is particularly beloved in the Kansai (western) region – after all, the present version was invented here. In Kansai they consider it okazu (お菜) – a side dish to accompany rice. It’s like the chip sandwich of Kansai; carbs on carbs – the rest of Japan thinks this is weird. It can also be referred to as Kansai-style, or komono (粉モノ) in the Kansai region. Ko (粉) means ‘flour’, and mono (モノ) means ‘things; stuff’.
The batter contains a few additional ingredients:
- Tenkasu (天かす): crunchy bits of tempura batter; the leftover bits floating in the oil after cooking tempura (i.e.: a by-product)
- Beni-shouga (紅生姜): thin slices of pickled red ginger
- Dashi (だし): soup stock; Osaka dashi is particularly unique (like New York City tap water), and is what gives Osaka-style okonomiyaki it’s distinctive flavour
- Cabbage: Asian or Taiwanese cabbage is used; it is softer than Western drumhead cabbage; this is arguably the main ingredient
It is topped off with thin slices of pork belly, and then garnished with ao-nori, okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise*, and bonito flakes.
*Osaka-style okonomiyaki is a sub-style of Kansai-style okonomiyaki. In Osaka, they always garnish with Japanese mayonnaise. Other cities in Kansai, like Kobe or Hyogo, will usually not.
The main difference between Osaka-style and Hiroshima-style (aka: hiroshimayaki (広島焼き)) is the addition of noodles in Hiroshima. Yakisoba (焼きそば – fried noodles) is the most common, but udon is used as well. Hiroshima-style is also topped off with a fried egg, contains a lot more cabbage than Osaka-style, and has beansprouts as a common ingredient.
The method of cooking differs as well. While Osaka-style mixes the cabbage into the batter and then tops with other ingredients, in Hiroshima they cook their okonomiyakis in layers – the batter is poured on, then topped with ingredients, and another layer of batter is poured on, and so on. The sauce used to garnish is sweeter.
You should definitely go to each respective city/area to try the different okonomiyaki. A word of warning though: don’t ask for “Hiroshima-style” okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, or “Osaka-style” in Osaka. Just ask for okonomiyaki. Each area believes that they have the purest and true form of okonomiyaki, and to specify their area implies that their’s is a derivative (or knock-off).
Ikayaki is literally translated as “grilled squid”. Anywhere else in Japan, this describes grilled squid (either as a whole, as rings, or tentacles) topped off with a sauce of some kind. In Osaka, ikayaki is squid-filled pancakes. A hard dough (like bread dough) is filled with chopped squid, and cooked between two iron plates. It comes out looking like a folded filled crepe. It gained popularity due to its quick cooking time. A variant is derayaki (デラ焼き), where egg is added to the mixture.
There is a famous ikayaki shopfront in the basement of the Hanshin department Store in Osaka’s Umeda district. The shop has no name, and has been running with the same recipe since 1957. They are immensely popular; on a good day you might only wait 20 minutes! Regulars say that there is something different about this shop’s ikayaki. Apparently it is the seasoning and their extra thick iron plates that does the trick. The thicker iron plates can reach higher temperatures, which helps keep the insides soft while the outside becomes crispy. No doubt another reason for their popularity is their price. It costs around 120 yen (~AUD $1.40) for a regular ikayaki, and 170 yen (~AUD $1.90) for a derayaki.
Teppanyaki refers to a style of cooking rather than a dish itself – so various dishes can be cooked teppanyaki-style. Teppanyaki means ‘grilling on a metal plate’. Teppan (鉄板) is a special iron plate for this style of cooking. But teppanyaki is more than just cooking on a special iron plate; this style of cooking involves theatrics, where the chef cooks in front of the guests, and displays dexterous knifework and skilful use of utensils – flipping food into guests’ mouths, throwing an egg in the air and cracking it mid-fall, and flambeing food with aplomb.
Teppanyaki actually began in the kitchens of Japanese families during the 1900s, where meals would be prepared on a small grill. The first commercialisation of teppanyaki, as we know it today, was in 1945. A restaurant called Misano opened in Kobe and introduced the idea of cooking Western-style dishes on a large flat iron top in front of guests. It was more popular with foreigners, who loved the performance aspect, and the familiar food. The showy displays actually deterred the locals, who thought it unsightly and in bad manners. As teppanyaki restaurants grew popular in tourist areas, the owners decided to increase the performance aspect.
In 1964, the first teppanyaki restaurant was opened overseas, in New York City. This restaurant was called Benihana, and still exists today with multiple chains across the US. In the States, these restaurants are commonly called ‘Japanese steakhouses’, or ‘Hibachi grills’ – even though a hibachi (火鉢) is an open-grill, unlike a teppan which is a flat iron top. Over the years, teppanyaki became synonymous with a cooking performance, and nowadays chefs receive extensive training before they are permitted to cook in front of guests.
What’s better than food on a stick?
Deep-fried food on a stick!
Which is exactly what kushikatsu is – skewers of battered, deep fried food, particularly pork. Kushikatsu began as skewers of deep fried pork, created in the Shinsekai area of Osaka to feed and satisfy the hungry masses. Even today it is considered layman’s food in Osaka. Kushikatsu is similar to tonkatsu (豚カツ), but it’s:
- More casual
- Not necessarily always pork. Tonkatsu is always made with pork, but you can skewer almost anything with kushikatsu.
- Dipped into a mixture of flour and egg, and then coated in breadcrumbs (whereas with tonkatsu, you coat it in flour first, then egg, then breadcrumbs). The kushikatsu method results in faster preparation.
The popularity of kushikatsu is its versatility – you can literally skewer and cook anything you like. Kushikatsu restaurants often sell by the skewer, which is a good way to try lots of different things. Tables will have a communal bowl of dipping sauce, so never double dip. If you need more sauce, there should be a bowl of cabbage leaves nearby which you use as a saucer to collect more sauce (you can also eat the cabbage, which helps with digestion).
In Osaka, kushikatsu is one ingredient on a skewer. The skewers are smaller compared to other styles, and customers generally order more as a result. Therefore, the batter is usually premixed, containing powdered egg and flour. Kushikatsu has variants in other ares of Japan:
- Tokyo-style: tends to be a skewer alternating between pieces of pork and spring onion. The batter uses fresh egg and a thin layer of panko. It is also called kushiage (串揚げ).
- Nagoya-style: tends to be served as a side dish to doteni (土手煮 – beef offal stew cooked in hatccho-miso, the local Nagoya speciality). The skewers will be dipped in the thick miso sauce used for the stew.
A great place to eat Osaka-style kushikatsu is in Shinsekai. Shinsekai is an area south of Namba, and it well known for being the epicentre of kushikatsu (not surprising really, since this was where it was first created). Apparently it was created by the female proprietress of Ganso Kushikatsu Daruma in 1929. Manual labourers wanted something tasty, quick, cheap and filling to eat during their meal breaks, and she provided. Kushikatsu Daruma is now one of the leading kushikatsu chains in Japan. The Shinsekai area is popular because its atmosphere harks to the bygone days of the 50s and 60s. Also keep an eye out for Billiken-san – the god of fortune. His golden statue is found at the Tsutenkaku Tower, and at various kushikatsu restaurants in the area. People believe wiping the bottom of his feet will bring you good fortunes.
Well there you have it! A breakdown of some of Osaka’s best yaki dis-
H-Hey! What are you doing here?
…The sly little bugger must’ve sneaked in somehow. Not that I can blame him. Because while this isn’t a yaki dish, it is very much a well-known Osakan dish, and no article on Osaka food can go without this mention.
Kitsune-udon is an udon noodle soup served with pieces of deep-fried tofu called abura-age (油揚げ). The name literally means ‘fox udon’, and it gets this name because folklore says that a kitsune‘s favourite food is abura-age. It is the most popular udon dish in Japan. You many also hear it being referred to as shinoda-udon.
It was invented in Osaka during the Meiji period (1868-1912) in a restaurant called Matsubaya. The owner, Yotaro, used to work in a restaurant called Tokotake. Back then Tokotake used to serve both sushi and udon. When it removed udon from its menu, Yotaro decided to set up his own udon shop. His former manger advised him to create a new udon dish to attract customers, so Yotaro invented kitsune-udon. He got the idea from inari-zushi (いなり寿司 – sushi rice stuffed in abura-age pouches). Originally, Yotaro served the abura-age on the side, but since customers would often put the tofu in the bowl of udon, he eventually served it with the udon instead.
Normally two pieces of abura-age are served, and there is a religious background to this. Inari is the god(dess) of rice production, fertility, agriculture, and general prosperity. This makes Inari a very important kami (神 – god) to the Japanese. Inari communicates by way of fox messengers. Inari shrines are always flaked by two stone foxes, and hence when making offerings, two pieces of abura-age are offered. The two foxed symbolise yin and yan, and the beginning and end of the universe. The two pieces of abura-age also symbolise a happy marriage.
While kitsune udon is popular all over Japan, the kitsune udon in Osaka is particularly good because of the dashi. Dashi is treated with a high priority in Osaka cuisine.
Well, that should keep Inari’s envoys happy for a while. So there you have it – an overview of Osaka’s most famous yaki (and one not so yaki) dishes. If you want it grilled, roasted, broiled, barbequed, and flamed, Osaka should definitely be at the top of your list.
Yaki! Yaki! Yaki!
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