Food & Drink | THE UNRELIABLE FOOD CRITIC

In the gutter of Osaka, but not looking at the Michelin stars

by Nick Currie

Cycling through one of the poorer quarters of Osaka, I start feeling peckish. So I park my bike in one of the rundown shopping arcades that crisscross this working-class city and duck, almost at random, into a cheap eatery. The ancient proprietress waves me to the counter and, without even asking, serves me something delicious, porky and garlicky. She spreads something out on a black plate polka-dotted with curlicues of spring onion and surmounted by a raw egg. It is (insert flavor) and (insert texture) and (insert local cultural history) … etc., etc.

OK, that’s all a lie. I’m actually describing a polka-dotted jacket in a secondhand clothes shop called Free Box. I’ve just transposed the garment into a dish. Artistic license. I’ve done it, and I’m coming clean about it now because this is the way I’d love to start a new food column in The Japan Times, if they were kind enough to ask me to write one. It’s how I’d start if I loved stopping for cheap food as much as I love shopping for secondhand clothes.

They do have something in common. I’d probably pay the same for my notional cheap eat (about ¥500) as I did for the dotted jacket. The same sort of ancient shōtengai (shopping street) lady — they all seem to be about 85 — would probably sell me the dish. And I’d leave the place delighted to confirm my basic bias: that the cheapest things — working-class things — are sometimes the very best life has to offer.

The guiding philosophy of my new food column in The Japan Times (if I lucked into one) would be that the food which makes it out of “Japan’s kitchen” and goes global — savory okonomiyaki pancakes, takoyaki octopus dumplings, super-garlicky ramen — is usually working-class street food. Unpretentious, delicious, scoffed down in joints where you pay for food through a vending machine, then face the wall when it arrives, slurp loudly and wipe your mouth with a toilet roll. Given the chance, I’d explore back alleys where gimlet-eyed men in baggy carpenter pants glance up from enormous bowls, surprised to see a foreigner. I’d shop at garish supermarket chain Tamade. And at some point I’d probably head to Osaka’s Korean district and rhapsodise about the cheap eats in the market.

And I will do all that, I promise. Just as soon as I learn to love eating.

The truth is, I have some weird psychological or cultural blockage about food, some semi-anorexic or post-Calvinist resentment about needing to eat at all. If I could suck astronaut food out of aluminum tubes, I would. (Actually, you can buy astronaut food-tubes in the local convenience stores. They’re color-coded for protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, energy. I suck them while cycling — maybe I’ll do a piece on them one day.)

Lunch for me is always the same: leftover rice, a can of chick peas — which are not easy to find here in Japan — and a sachet of precooked chicken curry from Thailand. I microwave the spicy mush and bolt it down.

But I want to relish food, I really do. Under the inner puritan there’s a sensualist, an aesthete. There’s a potential fat man in the thin man, and he’s potentially happy.

I’ll tell you what, Japan Times: indulge me with a food column and I’ll work these issues out, month by month. It might be interesting if I can describe it well. I’ll park my bike and really duck into some amazing Osaka eateries. We’ll discover them together.

Let’s eat cheaply, let’s eat well, let’s eat out west Japan! I’m pulling on my dotted jacket as we speak, and feeling better about life already.