Osaka - Japan's Kitchen
Written by and photography by Mark Parren Taylor
A Japanese saying claims that while people from Kyoto are financially ruined by their spending on clothes, Osakans are commonly left penniless through eating out! Are they just a sociable bunch who won’t cook at home – or is Osaka Japan’s first city of food?
Osakans are often stereotyped in Japan as hard-nosed hoodlums or comedians with loud mouths. Their language, Osaka-ben, is at once lilting and a little gruff – some Japanese wince when they hear a Kansai-region dialect (of which Osaka-ben is one). But doesn’t a little rough help us appreciate the smooth?
Just 40km away, the folk in the ancient capital Kyoto also speak in a Kinki-hogen dialect, as it’s known, but theirs is at the other end of the scale. The tone is softer, more polite – it’s dressed in delicate terms. These cities are neighbours and yet worlds apart. Osaka has a reputation for being a little boisterous, fun-loving, brash. Kyoto is far more interested in traditional elegance. But elegance is in the eye – and the ear! – of the beholder. And Osakans (according to folklore) know what kind of elegance they’d prefer to spend their hard-earned money on.
It was probably at the start of the 18th century that the famous adage ‘Osakans can impoverish themselves through eating’ gained popularity. Then Osaka was a city of merchants, many of them the richest in Japan, so to have found oneself bankrupted through food meant you must have eaten oodles! This gastronomic notoriety came at the same time as the founding of the city’s Dojima Rice Exchange, a pioneering futures market where rice was sold ahead of the harvest. Suddenly Osaka and not Tokyo (then known as Edo) was the culinary capital. As the port grew in importance and the city became Japan’s prime distribution hub, local traders felt the need to dish out some of their growing wealth: the arts and education bloomed, but above all restaurants boomed. After all, those merchants needed feeding while they entertained or struck business deals. With all of this happening, it’s no surprise Osaka became known as ‘the nation’s kitchen’ – a moniker it still answers to today.
Big and small
From the observation deck atop the Umeda Sky Building in downtown Osaka, there are astounding views across ‘Japan’s kitchen’. The city stretches as far as... well, as far as the other cities it joins up with. But you can make out the busy port and the wholesale market – just a couple of modern-day reminders of an influential past. You can also see that it’s a big place with an appetite to match.
“It’s too big!” Chef Shintaro Matsuo surveys his restaurant Koryo which has once more been awarded two Michelin stars. Though the recognition is satisfying, he assures me that the ultimate satisfaction is the simplest: it comes from cooking. Koryo is a small and welcoming place, but its 12-cover capacity is still two or four seats too many for the chef-patron. “I want a more intimate feel.” Less is more for Shintaro-san. The same is true for his food: he selects the finest ingredients and matches them in surprising yet satisfying combinations. His sashimi course includes, for example, a joyous plate of succulent bonito tuna, a tease of wasabi and a rich, fudgy egg yolk that has been steeped in soy sauce for a few days.
A few blocks away, Yoshino Zushi offers an altogether different gourmet experience. Owner Hideo Hashimoto and his son continue the 170-year-old family business making ‘box sushi’. Known as hakozushi, it was devised by their forefather Yoshino Torazo and is a type of the ‘pressed’ oshizushi that was the precursor to the conveyor-belt variety nowadays eaten throughout the world. Using a box-like mould, vinegar-doused rice is decorated with mackerel, sea bream, and omelette.
These toppings are overlaid with artistic precision to create an image no less wonderful than an Impressionist landscape painting. Once pressed the surprisingly firm sushi block is sliced and arranged so that the original ‘design’ of toppings is confused – like one of those sliding tile puzzles before it’s solved. It’s no surprise that hakozushi is considered a sophisticated – and delicious – gift. Alas it is a dying culinary craft: only a handful of establishments continue to offer this Osakan speciality.
But it’s not just fine dining and artisan sushi that can bite big chunks out of your bank balance; inexpensive street food is so moreishly yummy that it too can nibble away at the wallet. Close to Shitennoji Temple, a little shophouse has been turning out handmade tsurigane manju for 110 years: these bell-shaped cakes are filled with an oozing sweet-bean paste. They’re only ¥110 (US$1.50) each – but an addiction will surely lead to a stern letter from your bank manager. Takoyaki, however, are perhaps the city’s unmissable street snack: lightly fried balls of steaming batter filled with diced octopus and sprinkled with bonito flakes. There are stalls turning them out everywhere. They are delicious – but be careful not to burn your tongue!
If elegance is in the eye and the ear of the beholder, then for Osakans, it seems, elegance is also in the mouth. Locals are wary of eating takoyaki too hot: a scalded tongue would mean a few days spent without tasting the fine food available in their city. Osaka certainly has an elegant and historic culinary scene, and local recipes and innovations have played an intrinsic part in creating modern Japanese cuisine – a cuisine that is popular worldwide. Without Osakan cooks – and many years of Osaka’s residents eating themselves into bankruptcy – not just Japan but the world would be a poorer place.
The first-time visitor to Japan could be forgiven for being confused by the occasional butcher’s shop they might stumble upon that tidily displays perhaps just a dozen joints of meat. This is not necessarily a poorly stocked store. In fact, quite the opposite: it wisely sells a very desirable product: Kobe beef. To earn this title – and the large wad of yen that a kilo can fetch – the beef has to meet some strict criteria. For example, the animal must be a tajima-ushi-breed Wagyu bullock that’s normally black (although about a tenth are brown), that was born in Hyogo Prefecture (the 8,000km2 region of which Kobe is capital), that weighed in at less that 470kg, and so on. Other tests depend on the quality of the meat and nature of the fat marbling, which is remarkably distinct and key to the renowned flavour and succulence of this luxury food. Gourmands believe the high soft-fat content gives the beef a texture akin to foie gras – and an added benefit in these health-conscious times is that it contains a greater proportion of monounsaturated and unsaturated fat than the meat of any other cattle. Elsewhere, including the USA, Australia, and the UK, Kobe-style beef is reared according to the traditional Japanese methods, often using Wagyu-Angus crossbreeds or even Limousin cattle originally from France. As it happens, these enterprising foreign farmers – probably as part of a marketing stunt – also claim to provide their cattle with a daily ration of 40 pints of beer each and the occasional massage to ensure supple muscle tone. But farmers near Kobe insist that it’s all an urban myth – it’s not traditional or necessary for them to pamper their stock with beer and back rubs!