When a city’s being is inextricably linked to the maxim, “To eat oneself into ruin” (kuidaore), it’s a foregone conclusion that the city is serious about its food. Such is the case of Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city and gateway to the Kansai region.
Osaka’s disposition for all things culinary stems from a location that has provided access to high-quality ingredients, its mercantile history, and being close to the ocean and waterway trade, explained Aiko Tanaka, professor of food studies at Osaka Shoin Women’s University and author of “Food Studies of Osaka: From Paddy Field to Our Chopsticks.”
“The mountains surrounding Osaka are the source of high-grade soft water, which is most effective at extracting the umami and flavor components from kombu (kelp) to make dashi,” she said, describing the Kansai region’s preference for making Japan’s versatile and subtly flavored sea stock. The variety of kelp favored in Kansai is ma kombu, harvested in southern Hokkaido, which was traditionally shipped to the region by kitamaebune cargo ships following the Edo Period (1603-1868).
An abundance of local vegetables including Naniwa varietals (Naniwa being an olden name for Osaka), as well as easy access to fresh and bountiful seafood from the Seto Inland Sea, also played a part in the prefecture developing its rich food culture according to Tanaka.
The city’s mercantile past was no less important, she noted, as it formed a significant role in Osaka becoming what could be described as the epicurean epicenter of Japan. Trade saw Osaka become a storehouse for rice and the city earned the moniker of the nation’s kitchen — tenka no daidokoro. Merchants would take their customers out to restaurants for both entertainment and business purposes in lieu of dining at home.
“Osaka was designated as a ‘special economic zone’ in the Edo Period,” Tanaka said. “Located away from the central government and overt religious and political pressure, the city gave birth to popular civilian food in the broad sense, with Osaka cuisine created and perfected by the ‘people’ of Osaka themselves.”
The role of soy in local cuisine
Because the Kansai region has traditionally favored a lighter style of dashi than that of areas in eastern Japan, there is also a preference for a light-colored soy sauce, usukuchi shōyu. A precursor to soy sauce, tamari — said to be a liquid byproduct of miso production and derived only from soybeans with no wheat added — was first produced in Yuasa, Wakayama Prefecture, around the 16th century.
Usukuchi shōyu’s roots can also be traced to Kansai, specifically Tatsuno in Hyogo Prefecture around 1660. The lighter colored soy sauce features a higher salt content than regular soy sauce (koikuchi shōyu) that is more commonly used in Tokyo and the Kanto area.
Because usukuchi soy sauce is said to impart a delicate flavor to dishes, and its lighter color does not interfere with other ingredients, it was predominately used in Kansai’s shōjin ryōri (traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) and kaiseki ryōri, a traditional multicourse meal initially based on meals served before a tea ceremony.
While usukuchi shōyu has since become a common ingredient used in cooking, it is not necessarily limited to cooking in Kansai cuisine, according to a spokesperson from major soy sauce manufacturer Kikkoman, which is based in Chiba but maintains a factory in the Kansai region.
Instead, most Kansai households tend to use different soy sauces depending on the dish. Usukuchi soy sauce is said to enhance the natural color and taste of vegetables, fresh produce, and dishes such as udon noodles and dashimaki tamago (rolled omelet cooked with dashi), while regular, darker soy sauce pairs well with the Kansai region’s famous Kobe beef, the spokesperson added.
Popular dishes and locales
Today, an increasing influx of overseas visitors to Osaka is becoming familiar with popular local dishes such as okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes), takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and udon (thick, white wheat noodles). Such flour-based dishes are known as konamon, said Tanaka, a type of B-kyū gurume (affordable, quality meals) originally served as quick, easy and hearty meals to a burgeoning population of shitamachi (downtown) laborers in Shinsekai and similar areas.
Other soul food-esque dishes such as kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables), doteyaki (beef sinew stewed using miso, sweet sake, and sugar) have similar origins. Shinsekai is still the most authentic spot to indulge in some kushikatsu today, with plenty of the suburb’s inexpensive restaurants around Tsutenkaku Tower serving up the local specialty.
The lively Dotonbori area and nearby Ura-Namba in Osaka’s southern Minami district are home to a heavy concentration of casual okonomiyaki and takoyaki restaurants. Ura-Namba is fast developing a reputation as a hotspot for its bars, bistros and other eateries, the area springing to life in the evening. Cooking utensils and knives are sold at Doguyasuji close by.
Those interested in professional cooking knives are recommended to visit Osaka prefecture’s southern port city of Sakai. Boasting a roughly 600-year-old history as a renowned manufacturer of quality metalware, the city is one of the five major knife-producing centers in Japan.
Other areas in central Osaka known for their dining options include Tenma, with its warren of alleyways and street front restaurants, and glitzy Kitashinchi. The latter is not far from Umeda and has been described as “the Ginza of Osaka” for its concentration of top-tier and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Many of these comprise of a more intimate form of kaiseki dining, the counter-style kappo ryōri, which is said to have originated in Osaka during the 1920s. Diners watch the itamae (chef) prepare and cook their meals, perhaps discussing the seasonality of the ingredients used, cooking techniques and customer preferences.
Meeting diner preferences
A current culinary opportunity, where catering to diverse customer preferences is of utmost importance, is Osaka’s reaction to halal cuisine needs. Increasing numbers of visitors to Japan hail from predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and these tourists need dining options where they don’t need to worry about the use of cooking alcohol such as mirin, or pork.
One place where diners can order halal snacks such as seafood grilled in butter is the bustling Kuromon Ichiba market that boasts over 180 food wholesalers and retailers. Government organizations such as the Japan National Tourist Association and private sector halal media groups have all established websites and other resources for Muslim travelers.
Kikkoman, who released a gluten-free halal soy sauce in 2017, is also stepping up to meet consumer needs. The sauce was made in the same way as regular soy sauces via a pure-brewing method. While Kikkoman said it was difficult to reproduce a product devoid of flour albeit with the same rich flavor profile of regular soy sauce, feedback on the product has been overwhelmingly positive. The firm is constantly striving to deepen understanding regarding halal foods among its workers to maintain its halal qualifications and certification.
“A huge number of visitors to Osaka hail from Asia,” said Tanaka. “Repeat visitors (are) now venturing deeper into Kansai, particularly Nara and Wakayama prefectures.” Meeting tourists needs was key, she said, noting that Osaka’s open-minded spirit would definitely assist in this.