There’s a reason the Japanese call Osaka tenka no daidokoro, or ‘the nation’s kitchen’. If your fantasies of a trip to Japan involve flashing neon lights, raucous nightlife and tempting treats hidden behind almost every darkened doorway or lattice-screen facade, then Osaka is the destination for you.
What Japan’s third-largest city lacks in terms of the historic temples and serene shrines of nearby Kyoto, it more than makes up for in culinary delights. And – especially if you’ve already visited Tokyo – you’ll immediately notice Osaka’s easy-going and fun-loving vibe. This city, like most others in the Kansai region, isn’t as stuffy as the capital.
While Japanese foods like sushi and ramen are now available all around the world, Osaka lays claim to more obscure but equally delectable delicacies, including octopus dumplings, breaded skewers and wafer-thin sushi. And most of them pair exceedingly well with a cold Asahi beer or chilled whisky highball. It’s no surprise then that the city’s unofficial motto is kuidaore (‘eat until you drop’). Here are five must-try dishes from Osaka.
According to legend, a street vendor named Tomekichi Endo created these octopus-studded spheres back in the 1930s. Tako-yaki have remained a favourite street snack across Japan ever since, but they will forever have a special place in the heart of Osakans.
Countless stalls dedicated to the dumplings thrive in the city centre. Come evening time, join the throngs in the long but quickly moving queue at Wanaka Namba or any of the other tako-yaki spots located within a few blocks of this brightly-lit Dōtonbori thoroughfare. The nimble staff carefully pour the batter into specially moulded skillets, before spearing the balls with a chopstick when they’re precisely half-cooked and then expertly flipping them.
The fully cooked golden orbs, now crispy on the outside and molten in the middle, are piled into a boat-shaped tray and smothered in a savoury sauce (think Worcestershire meets American barbecue) and garnished with piles of dried bonito flakes. The dramatic preparation makes it tempting to dive right in, but approach fresh-from-the-griddle tako-yaki with caution. Poking a toothpick into the skin reveals the steamy interior: restrain yourself and release some of the heat before having a taste.
This dish, another favourite from the city, might look like a pancake, but the eggy batter base dotted with grated yam makes it more evocative of an omelette. Thinly sliced pork belly is a popular addition. At Ajinoya, just blocks from the Dōtonbori, you can also request okonomiyaki made with squid, shrimp, octopus, corn, kimchi or even cheese layered over the top. Don’t pass up the opportunity to add yaki-soba (fried noodles), which adds extraordinary textural contrast.
Have patience after placing your order. Okonomiyaki is made to order and prepared carefully, cooked one side at a time, on a flat teppan griddle. The pancake-like creation arrives on a plate, drenched in thick stripes of mayonnaise and savoury brown sauce. As with tako-yaki, a sprinkling of green aonori seaweed flakes, the requisite bonito flakes and sometimes pickled ginger are the crowning glory. Separate a small slice using the tiny spatula placed on the side and have a taste with your chopsticks. Perfect okonomiyaki are crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.
Leave the Dōtonbori district and head south to Shin-Sekai, anchored by the imposing Tsūten-kaku tower, to experience another definitive Osakan dish. While it’s available all over the city, this district, in particular, is known as the origin of kushikatsu skewers, and the streets are filled with shops hawking breaded and fried morsels of meat, fish, quail eggs, and vegetables threaded onto wooden sticks.
Daruma, offering panko-crusted pieces of everything from sweet potato to shishito peppers, scallops and even mochi, opened in 1929 and is a reliable stop for kushikatsu. Pull up a seat at the long bar. The cooks serve the skewers with an air of formality that seems a bit over the top for breaded bites on a stick. You’ll understand the pride, however, when you bite into a pepper or chicken cutlet with a crisp and crunchy exterior and a warm and juicy middle. A thinner version of the ubiquitous savoury brown sauce awaits on the table in a communal bowl. Whatever you do, don't dip the same skewer twice – double-dipping is considered bad manners. When you’re done with a stick, place it vertically, standing in the cylindrical container.
Thick and chewy udon noodles are a favourite lunchtime staple in all parts of Japan. But this particular version, made with hot dashi stock and topped with aburaage, or deep-fried tofu simmered in a sweet sauce, hails from 19th-century Osaka. The origin of the name is conflicting – while kitsune means fox in Japanese, it’s unclear if it’s a reference to the orange-brown colour of the tofu or connected to a Shinto legend. Regardless, find kitsune udon, along with other versions of the beloved soup, at Byakuan in the Yodagawa Ward, where the exquisite noodles are made on site using wheat grown in Japan.
All types of sushi have their origins in the ancient Southeast Asian practice of fermenting cured fish in rice. Edo-style sushi, the popular variety of raw fish paired with vinegared rice that hails from Tokyo, now reigns supreme around the world. Sushi in the Kansai region, however, evolved into a particular type made with cooked, cured or pickled fish formed into brilliantly coloured jewel-like pieces.
Traditional Osaka-style sushi calls for impossibly thin pieces of cured mackerel. The chef presses cooked sushi rice into a rectangular cypress box, layers the fish and sea kelp on top, and presses it. The resulting brick of sushi is then sliced and separated into individual pieces. Over the years, Osaka chefs have also introduced sea eel, sea bream, small shrimp and egg omelette. Most of the Kansai-style sushi restaurants have been at it for decades. Yoshino, for example, has been in operation for more than 170 years.
Osaka is served by Kansai International Airport. It's an hour from Kyoto and three hours from Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet train). The city has plenty of sleeping options across all budgets.