Osaka, the biggest city in Kansai and 3rd biggest in the whole of Japan, has undoubtedly some of the best street foods to offer. Right by the Glico man on the bustling side of Dotonbori, is a street chock full of local specialties. The atmosphere is lively and vibrant, with throngs of people excitedly eating and snapping photos. As can be seen from the kabuki theatres, it used to be a theatre district, but is now a famous nightlife and entertainment area. Be it in specialty restaurants or from the street food along Dotonbori, your taste buds will be in for a wild ride.
From Osaka station, ride the subway to either Namba or Nipponbashi station. Dotonbori is a short walk away. The neon lights and sudden chatter of Taiwanese and Korean tourists might give it away that you have already set foot in the famous street that runs along the Dotonburi canal.
Kushi-katsu (串かつ) means fried skewers and they come in a variety of ingredients that are lightly breaded and then deep fried. Many local Japanese may be spotted having nomikai (drinking parties) with a free flowing tray of kushikatsu. It does make a good accompaniment for alcohol. They are not battered like in tempura but have a thin breadcrumb crust that does not stick to the main ingredient. Besides meat sticks including beef, pork belly, duck and chicken mince, there are also lighter ones such as vegetables, mushrooms, mochi, cheese and quail eggs. The skewers are dipped in a savory-sweet brown sauce that is much like Worcestershire or tonkatsu sauce. There is, however, an etiquette to it; the sauce does not come per order but is in a tin that does not leave the table. Hence the cardinal rule: no double dipping!
Takoyaki (たこ焼き) means grilled octopus, and is actually grilled batter with pieces of octopus tentacle in it. The grill has semi-spherical molds, wherein the chefs skillfully maneuver the batter till it is a full sphere. Usually, bits of red ginger, chives, and mini fried batter puffs are added to it. Served in a paper boat in servings of a minimum of 6, the golf ball sized takoyaki are drizzled with mayonnaise, brown sauce, dried parsley and katsuobushi bonito flakes. The ones that we had were a little gooey; I personally prefer it to be crispier but it still is a flavorsome little bomb!
This ramen could very well be the best that I’ve had in the whole of Kansai. A style reminiscent of but different from the creamy Hakata style, the broth seems to still be made from pork and chicken bones, but it is the combination of the al dente noodles and toppings that take the cake. At one of the two stores that we spotted, there were no seats and customers were slurping noodles while standing around the counter. The two toppings were spiced mustard greens and kimchi, which really heightened the richness of the broth. The pork chashu was also noteworthy: marinated and seasoned well, with the fat layer braised to a tender consistency. Be alert in looking for open spots on the counter as they get grabbed quickly!
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) means grilled as you like, and is a savory pancake that usually has cabbage and other ingredients in a flour batter. Restaurants such as Mizuno have been run by families since WWII; their specialty is a yam flour based batter, with roast pork and scallops. It is an inexpensive snack which always leaves you asking for more. Depending on the restaurant, the okonomiyaki either comes already cooked or as raw batter which gets mixed in and cooked on the flat grill. Having it cooked and ready to eat at the table is nice, but grilling it on your own and making some blunders could be pretty fun!
These tai, or sea bream-shaped pastries are a great snack. The traditional flavors are red bean and sweet potato, but contemporary versions include custard, chocolate, and even bacon and cheese. You know it’s a good taiyaki when the dough is fragrant, the crust is thin, and the filling extends partially into the tail. While good as a snack, the taiyaki is also a fantastic dessert to round the night off.
We also spotted near the end of the street two food pop-up stores selling melon pan ice cream sandwiches and Kobe beef cubed steak. Homemade melon bread as a vanilla ice cream sandwich? Sign me up! Low-grade Kobe beef fried teppanyaki style with a side of mochi potato fries? Sign me up again!
Pop-up stores are not as common a sight in Japan as much as other western countries; those that are existing have been permitted to only sell pre-made or packaged foods, and are generally not very innovative in my opinion. That said, we were thrilled to find such pop-ups in Osaka, and hope to see more of them! here was also a comedy club next to them. It was a pity we could only do mediocre Japanese as the poster did look really fun and provocative.
These stores sell omiyage, which are souvenirs that are usually food, that visitors get to bring back as gifts. You can find giant pocky sticks in funky flavors, old school Glico boxes, as well as this knock off of the Shiroi Koibito of Hokkaido, Omoshiroi Koibito. The former means “white lovers”, while the latter is a play on words which translates to “interesting/funny lovers”. Ezaki Glico, a huge Japanese confectionary company, is headquartered in Osaka.
Fun fact: the first candy produced by Glico was a caramel that had 15.4 kcal, which was supposedly the amount of energy needed to run 300 meters. And hence, the 300 meter running Glico man was born! It is the mandatory shot to have when you visit Osaka.
Food definitely offers a glimpse into the rich culture of Osaka. Have a blast along Dotonbori the next time you’re in town, and be sure to try these local specialty snacks!