Squid tentacles draw the crowds

by Kenzo Moriguchi

OSAKA — If asked to name Osaka’s local specialties, most outsiders would say okonomiyaki (meat and vegetable pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus dumplings, or, as former Gov. “Knock” Yokoyama once introduced them to visiting world leaders, “samurai balls”). While it’s true that these dishes originated in Osaka, locals will tell you that the tastiest treat in town is actually ikayaki — but with a uniquely Osakan twist.

Traditional ikayaki is grilled squid dipped in soy sauce; it’s often sold from street-side or beachfront stalls. A less common variety of the dish consists of chopped squid grilled in a pancake and topped with a special sauce. And then there’s ikayaki as it’s sold in the basement of Hanshin department store, in Osaka’s Umeda district.

This shop, which has no official name, sells pancake-style ikayaki, but with a flavor that has customers coming back for more.

“You can’t find ikayaki that taste like this anywhere else,” says Atsuko Katsuki, a 20-year-old student from Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, as she and her boyfriend make their way through three servings.

It’s cooked much like other pancake-style ikayaki: Batter is poured into a double-sided iron; chopped, boiled squid tentacles and seasonings are added, the iron is closed and the mixture grilled simultaneously on both sides. The cooking is done in less than a minute, and the ikayaki is slathered with a sauce like that used on okonomiyaki.

According to Kazuo Honda, who has worked at the shop for 12 years, the recipe has not changed since the shop first opened for business in 1957. He says that the seasonings and the extra-thick grilling iron are what make the taste so special. “Because the grill can be used to cook at very high temperatures, our ikayaki are crispy outside and soft and juicy inside,” he explains.

On top of this, as Katsuki pointed out, they’re also priced within reason. “I like the taste, and it’s cheap,” she says. “A regular ikayaki is just 120 yen.”

In addition to the regular type, the shop offers deluxe versions: ikayaki with egg is 170 yen; with egg and chopped spring onion, 190 yen. Honda says that the store, which is operated by Sakae Foods Corp., a Kadoma, Osaka Pref.-based company, sells about 100,000 servings every day, raking in at least 1 million yen in daily sales.

This isn’t hard to believe: On weekdays, the lines are constant between 3 p.m. and closing time at 8 p.m., while on weekends, customers can be seen lining up even before the shop’s 10 a.m. opening.

To keep up with the demand, the dozen workers at the shop must be quick. “Regular customers do not mind waiting in line because they know it won’t take long,” Honda says. “The longer the queue gets, the quicker we work.”

On a recent Sunday, Etsuko Tonozuka, 34, from Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, was among the preopening crowd. Based on the recommendation of a colleague, a native Osakan, she lined up early to make her purchase and still catch the 10:30 a.m. shinkansen from nearby Shin-Osaka Station.

“I wanted to buy some of this famous ikayaki before going back home,” she said.

Die-hard fans will go to even greater lengths, and there’s not much that will discourage them.

One 78-year-old man from Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, says he comes to the shop almost everyday for ikayaki and a beer. “I like the taste of squid legs and the texture. It tastes best when hot,” he said.

“I had a stomach operation a few years back to treat an ulcer, but I won’t stop eating this. I’ve been eating it for years.”