Cross-posted from SmokySweet.com
The Dōtonbori district is like a theme park for food; enormous LCDs in the style of Times Square play consumer brand logos and music videos while giant 3-D animatronic signs hover over storefronts, indicating the delicacies to be had inside. Some of them seem clear enough (an enormous crab with moving arms, a squid that puffs steam, an inflatable octopus or a plastic Kobe cow) but I’m not sure what the angry chef or creepy-looking clown are trying to sell. It doesn’t seem to matter though, the place is packed and there is no minimum height to go on these “rides” – despite the late hour, parents walked around carrying small babies, teenagers leaned against takoyaki counters and the businessman army paraded through in their identical suits.
Osakans love food and this is the place to get it. Both takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) were invented here so there are lots to choose from as well as other favourites; kitsune udon (udon with fried tofu), tecchiri (blowfish hot pot), kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers), sushi and crab. The city has been affectionately called, the city of “kuidaore,” meaning roughly “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” It comes from a proverb comparing Osaka to nearby Kyoto (the fashion centre): “Dress (in kimonos) till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka.” Well, I didn’t try on any kimonos in Kyoto but I had come to Osaka ready to eat.
I arrived in the afternoon and walked – lost, hot and sweaty, sore, tired, hungry – to the capsule hotel that I had selected online that allowed women. When I got there there was a sign on the door that said ‘No tattoos!’ which the clerk confirmed, adding that it was also men-only. WTF! In hindsight, I was way too tired to stay in a capsule but I also wasn’t super keen about wandering around Osaka with my bags either. I was still kind of in shock. I had come down off the tranquil monastery mountain of Koya-san into the city only that morning and after wandering the area around the station, I wrote in my journal:
“Osaka is not at all just like Tokyo so I’m surprised that people kept telling me that (in Canada). Guys occasionally loom sketchy, women look everything from slutty to skater-ish, people wear colours and shorts (women particularly, with suede thigh-highs). There are many blonde dye-jobs on both men and women and much more make up on women. In short, they seem much more embracing of style and originality than the monochrome salarymen uniforms of Tokyo. Also, they push. And there are bad smells. It’s like a any big city (which is obvious) but already kind of strange. The area close to the station is about the size of Yaletown, covered and just completely crazy. There are dozens of pachinko parlours, photo studios where you can be glammed / tarted up, arcades full of toys, nurse cafes, and all kinds of restaurants; Korean, Indian, tonkatsu, curry, noodles, fugu restaurants with tanks in the windows, conveyor-belt sushi and of course takoyaki. It’s a hedonistic pleasure dome.”
But that was small potatoes (or should I say octopus balls?) compared to Dōtonbori. Scanning the options lining the canal, I came up with a plan. I would start with the takoyaki shop right in front of me, circle around through the streets snacking on anything else that looked good, and end with a big okonomiyaki finish.
Takoyaki literally means “fried octopus” and the snack is simple enough but requires a special grill to make. Bits of octopus, scallions, pickled ginger and batter are poured onto the grill and fried then served with mayonnaise, scallions and shaved katsuoboshi (bonito flakes). They are not the perfect street food…so much dough and mayonnaise to balance on a fork so tiny that one wrong move could be disastrous for clothing. Takoyaki has been eaten in Osaka since the 1930s and all over Dōtonbori, you see people hunched over their takoyaki, trying to minimize the gap between their mouths and the container.
I am not in the habit of regularly eating octopus, but these were amazing (much better than anything I’ve had in Vancouver or Tokyo) so I was really glad I tried them in their home region. They were also pretty filling so I passed on the giant dragon ramen and the crab and the fugu, but I did sample some gyoza and some pressed sushi before getting in line for okonomiyaki at Mizuno.
Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki and Mizuno has been in business in Dōtonbori for 65 years, passed down through the family, and setting themselves apart by only using local ingredients. Okonomiyaki is sometimes called Japanese pizza, Japanese omelet or Japanese pancake because it is made with a batter of grated yam (nagaimo), flour, dashi broth, eggs and shredded cabbage then topped with an assortment of ingredients. Okonomi means “what you like” (and yaki of course means “grilled” or “cooked” like in yakitori) so the customer gets to choose what toppings they want – usually green onion, grilled onions, pork, seafood, shrimp, vegetables, mochi or cheese. At Mizuno, the specialty is roast pork and scallops and the most popular is octopus, scallop, squid, shrimp, and bacon. I also saw one being made with a layer of ramen noodles.
I was in line for a while so I had time to peruse the menu thoroughly, but ultimately I went with the most popular and was ushered into a tiny shop where I got a seat at the grill. In front of me, the cooks danced through the process, whisking batter, pouring it onto the grill, adding the desired toppings, moving them around to make sure that they are evenly cooked, and then adding the finishing touches (nori powder, bonito flakes, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise) and serving the guest. I’ve been to many establishments where you cook your own okonomiyaki, but it was neat to see all of the different variations on the grill (and probably tasted better).
My okonomiyaki was perfect – crispy bits on the outside and softly gooey inside with all kinds of different flavours coming up against each other. And it was so filling! After all I had eaten, I could barely finish my pancake and beer although I noticed some of my neighbours going back for seconds. As I wandered back out into the neon jungle, there was still quite a line-up outside but it’s easy to see how this dish has become so popular around here, especially late-night.