Eating more than your fill in Osaka

by Orlando Matkin

Kuidaore! (Eat till you drop!) goes the old maxim about Osaka. The imperative tone of this statement seems perfectly in tune with the brashness of the culture here. So as a newcomer to Kansai, after a life spent between Kanto and Britain, kuidaore is exactly what I and a couple of friends set out to do one evening. Osakan cuisine is characterized by big, bold dishes, often based on wheat flour. In fact, during the whole evening, we didn’t consume one single grain of rice, unusual when eating Japanese.

Takahata

Takahata’s been around a while, and at lunchtime you may have to queue, though at this early evening juncture, it’s empty. It offers the usual suspects: kitsune udon (thick wheat-based noodles with deep-fried tofu pockets), kare udon (noodles in curry), etc. Also a few interesting ones: beef udon is named “Western,” and there is also a miso udon. There are even Popeye and Olive udon: The former contains kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage), umeboshi (pickled plum) and wakame (kelp); the latter replaces kimchee with takana (leaf mustard).

Takahata makes its udon on the premises from dough brought in from its own prep kitchen. This is what sets any udon place apart from the herd. Look out for teuchiudon (handmade noodles) signs, which should guarantee a noodle better than the norm. Freshly made ones will almost certainly taste better, and have a better texture, than ones that arrive frozen or in a vacuum pack.

To enjoy the flavor of the noodles themselves, opt for a cold dish, as the noodles absorb less from the broth. Our cold bukkake (noodles with toppings splashed over them), topped with deep-fried tofu (technically making it a kitsune), certainly delivers on this score. You can even try a simple bowl of noodles for just ¥200 — wow!

Takahata, B2 Osaka Ekimae Daichi Biru, 1-3-1 Umeda, Kita-ku, Osaka; tel: (06) 6341-9210; Open: weekdays 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Closed: Sunday. Average cost without drinks: ¥500

Warajiya

No menu here. Warajiya serves only one dish: it comes out plain and you dress it yourself. There isn’t even the option to have your takoyaki (octopus dumplings) in a light broth as they do in Akashi a few kilometers down the coast.

We order for three, and out come platters of 10 fat little spheres of golden batter. They look rather forlorn on their faded red lacquer dishes, but an arsenal of condiments lies waiting to be unleashed. I try one au naturel. It’s not completely without charm, but given a shake of the omnipresent brown sauce, mayonnaise, aonoriko (powdered seaweed), shichimi (seven varieties of powdered spices) and powdered katsuo (skipjack tuna shavings), we’re off.

Rumor has it that the batter mix is enhanced with the addition of white wine, a distinctly Western ingredient, and there certainly is an extra depth of flavor present. Warajiya contrives to get these blighters crisp on the outside and gooey on the in, with the chewy texture of the octopus as a finale to each morsel.

After finishing up, I decide ours were precooked too far in advance and, just to make sure we get a taste of takoyaki at its best, order another round, specifically asking for them freshly made. The outer layer of batter is thinner this time, while retaining crispiness. My advice is to go when Warajiya is busy and the food is coming out the moment it’s cooked.

Warajiya, 1-1-20 Doujima, Kita-ku, Osaka; tel: (06) 6341-3402; Open: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (last orders 9:30 p.m.); Closed: Sunday. Average cost without drinks: ¥500

Sakura

We’re in the subterranean depths of Osaka station, in the center of the spiritual heartland of okonomiyaki (pan-fried batter cake), and Osaka really has something to prove to me. The first time I met someone from this city they complained about the small portions of overseasoned and overpriced food in Kanto, and I soon discovered this was a common theme among Osakans, who reserve particularly strong derision for okonomiyaki in . . . well, anywhere outside Osaka. So this had better be good.

Sakura is heaving — often a good sign. Eventually seated at the bar, right in front of the main hot plate, we are treated to a display almost on par with a martial art that would rival the performance at any expensive teppanyaki (hot-plate steak) restaurant. Having, in every sense, the hottest seats in the house, we are delighted to find that Sakura serves its draft beer in iced glasses — the perfect accompaniment.

We order from three different sections of the menu, but for some reason I still expect three very similar pancake-type things to appear. This is not what happens. OK, they are all round in shape, but the similarities end there. We have, in order of arrival, tonpei (pork hotcake), suji (a cheap cut of muscle or tendon beef) and the “mix.”

The tonpei comes out on its own hot plate, a mixture of pork and semibeaten egg atop fried vegetables; an interesting start and a good choice for anyone who is already a bit full or cutting down on the carbs.

Next comes the suji, which we’ve chosen to have half and half. That is, one part dressed in the ubiquitous brown sauce and mayonnaise, the other in soy sauce. It comes complete with konnyaku (devil’s tongue) and beni shoga (hot pickled ginger) on the inside. What a treat. I have never been a huge fan of konnyaku, finding it bland and chewy — the culinary equivalent of elevator music crossed with a mattress — but it is a perfect foil to the juiciness of the beef and the strong, sweet and pungent flavors of the pickled ginger and spring onions. It also adds a completely new texture to the dish without bringing in an unneeded additional flavor.

But the piece de resistance really is the mix okonomiyaki. Containing pork, squid, prawns and octopus, it’s a chubby little disc of a pancake, topped with an upside-down fried egg and fleshed out with julienned cabbage. The cabbage adds a surprisingly delicate crunch to the lightness of the pancake batter, the meat and various seafoods provide little treats with each mouthful and the egg on top, well, whoever said no to an extra egg?

This item far surpasses anything I have ever had under the name of okonomiyaki anywhere, ever. And strangely, although I am by now full to bursting, the okonomiyaki doesn’t feel stodgy in the way one might suppose it would. We’ve passed a whole evening eating flour based dishes, yet none of us felt heavy until we realized we had stuffed ourselves beyond the boundaries of sense. Our own faults, but then that’s what Osaka eating is all about. Kuidaore!

Sakura, Shin Umeda Shokudogai, 9-10 Kakuda Cho, Kita-ku, Osaka; tel: (06) 6364-7521; Open daily: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (last orders 10:30 p.m.). Average cost without drinks: ¥1,000