KYOTO – Here’s a joke unlikely to be endorsed by the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau: “There are three great reasons to visit Osaka: great people, great food and because Kyoto doesn’t have an airport.” The truth hurts, even if it’s also mildly humorous.
Osaka, a much more prosaic city than its World Heritage-studded neighbor Kyoto, can seem like an afterthought for visitors to Japan. The criticism being there is less to see and do. But what if you combined the first two elements of the joke: Osaka’s food culture and its gregarious denizens? The result might be something like Eat Osaka, which aims to teach visitors, and not so au fait residents, some cooking techniques as well as how to make a few classic Japanese home-cooked dishes — dashimaki (a sweet dashi-infused omelet), tsukemono (pickled vegetables) — which they can take home and try themselves. The cooking classes, run in English, are held in a storeroom retrofitted to look quintessentially Japanese, replete with shōji (sliding paper doors) and noren entrance curtains.
“We started Eat Osaka because our friends who come to stay with us from abroad almost always comment on how different and interesting the way we prepare food is, and how tough it can be to find things to do in Osaka that don’t require Japanese language,” says Sam Crofts, one-quarter of the Eat Osaka team.
Eat Osaka has precedence, or at least an older sibling: Cycle Osaka, a venture set up by Crofts, which takes tourists on guided tours of the city. Through Cycle Osaka, Crofts got to know fellow Briton Ben Daggers. Rounding out the team are Sam’s wife, Mai, and Ben’s wife, Arisa — both of whom are Kansai natives.
“Without ever thinking about it as a business, I guess we have done Eat Osaka evenings in our houses with friends for years,” Sam says. “Anyway, the four of us were talking one night about how Kyoto and Tokyo have so many activities for English-speaking visitors and what a shame it was that Osaka was underrepresented on this front. So we decided to make one of our own, to open our kitchens to the world and to put Osaka on the tourist map.”
As with every corner of Japan, Osaka is not short on regional specialities when it comes to cuisine. Sam says that in deciding on the courses, both couples came up with four or five practice menus.
“We selected the dishes that we felt struck a balance between taste, presentation and the fun involved in the food preparation,” he says. “Our guiding principle was that people should always be engaged with a hands-on activity, and they should leave with a full stomach and lots of great memories.”
Eat Osaka was cultivated over the summer of 2014 and opened the doors to its kitchen last autumn. I went along in October with a German friend who was here on holiday, for a hands-on lesson in Japanese home cooking. We were joined by an American and a Mongolian. The school is located under the shadow of Tsutenkaku, one of Osaka’s most recognizable (and lovably ugly) landmarks, in a storehouse at the back of Tower Knives, which sells high-end knives made in Osaka. Eat Osaka boasts a selection of knives from that shop, and if you have never used a Japanese knife before, you’re in for a treat.
Our hosts for the night are Arisa and Ben — the Crofts were housebound waiting for the arrival of their first child. Arisa, who comes from a family that runs a dumpling business, works the kitchen; her husband Ben acts as busboy and provides light entertainment.
Over the course of nearly three hours we learn a little about Osaka’s culinary history, a few tips for handling the knives and, best of all (for me anyway), how to make dashimaki, which should look as puffy as a pillow when it’s cooked right. Mine didn’t, but neither was it flat as a pancake.
The course is unhurried and there’s plenty of time for questions (and redos). Along the way, we prepare a few simple dishes such as tsukemono and miso soup. For the main course we tackle a rice burger that consists of pork fried in ginger, slapped between two buns of pounded rice. It’s rounded off with a shiso leaf for that extra bit of umami. Sushi it ain’t, but that’s the point: This is simple and delicious Japanese home cooking.
“I love showing people that there’s more to Japanese food than just sushi and tempura,” Arisa tells me. “It’s also great when customers write to tell me that they’ve been using the things they learned when they got back home.”
With the number of tourists to Japan on the up-and-up — and visitors hungry to both see and do — Eat Osaka is definitely carving out a fun and interesting niche. Kansai International Airport, even though it’s tilting into the sea, is definitely Osaka’s gain.
For details, visit www.eatosaka.com.