Osaka – ‘The Kitchen of Japan’

 

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Osaka is known as the ‘Kitchen of Japan’. This is because there are so many restaurants here and the people of Osaka love food. I mean they really love it, and talk about food a lot, and my Japanese work colleagues bring me all sorts of delicacies to try at work with my coffee. Yesterday, I got a small rice flower pastry in which was hidden a fresh strawberry. This doesn’t sound much but the combination of the strong flavor of the strawberry and the gooiness of the mildly flavoured rice flour dough made it one of the best sweets I’ve ever had. The day before, I got some jelly-like sweets made of fern coated with bean powder (see photo). Unlike, the strawberry-rice flour sweet, these, I found, are an acquired taste.

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My colleagues have also taken me to several restaurants to show me how delicious Japanese (and Asian) food is. I feel that they see themselves as (food) ‘ambassadors’ of Japan and want foreigners to love the food here as much as they do. And this is all fine by me. You see, I love food as well: I love eating it. I love talking about it. And I love cooking it. I used to do a fair amount of baking when I was back in Brighton, but since we do not have an oven in our apartment in Osaka (an oven is not a given in a Japanese kitchen) my cooking and baking are quite limited here. But not to worry, we are in Osaka. Let’s eat out for three years! And the great thing is that even if we tried a different restaurant at lunch and dinnertime every day for the next 3 years, we wouldn’t be able to sample all the restaurants in this city. Eating out twice a day for nearly 3 years would total approximately 2100 restaurants and according to TripAdvisor there are at least 7320 restaurants here. So, I think I can safely say there is a fair amount of choice and getting bored with the same restaurant(s) will not become an issue in Osaka.

Like Osaka, Brighton has a large number of restaurants (per capita), many of which are interesting privately owned quirky establishments. On the other hand, there are only a handful of restaurants in many towns and cities in Finland. This might be to do with the fact that it is relatively expensive to eat out combined with Finnish people generally being quite careful with money. The people of Osaka are different. There is a saying in Japan which translates roughly to something along the lines of: People of Osaka love food so much that they will bankrupt themselves by eating. And that may very well be true given that people eat out a lot. Having said that, it is relatively inexpensive to eat out here, that is, in comparison to going to the supermarket and buying the ingredients for the meal. You can have a good meal consisting of several dishes from about 800 JPY (£5 / €7) (see photo). In comparison to a pint or beer (600 JPY), food seems rather inexpensive. Last night, we went to a restaurant in which all dishes costs 290 yen (less than £2/€2.50). They were individual plates of food (e.g. one plate of chicken tempura, one plate of noodles, one plate of fried sweet potato dumplings, etc.), and because we were hungry and everything was so delicious we ended up ordering 19 portions. That’s between three adults and two children. I wasn’t kidding when I said that we love food.

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When we go out for food during the week, i.e. after I’ve finished work, I usually pop home to get changed first. This is not a problem given that we live about 200 metres from the Shinsaibashi and Dotombori areas, in which there are hundreds of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. This is kind of like a trendy young person’s place. You might be wondering why us, two nearly 40 year old people with two young children would choose to live in the city centre, 200 m from one of the major party areas of Osaka. I’ll give you three words. Mid. Life. Crisis. I know it is a bit sad but my husband and I both would ideally still be in our twenties. Luckily, we both feel this way. It would be worse if one of us was still longing for our long lost youth while the other considered sitting by the fire and watching documentaries about Wind Power, with a nice cup of tea and a slice of victoria sponge as a rock and roll night. For many years I have been more aware of us ageing, but it has only recently dawned on my husband that we are turning into our parents.

My husband’s way to deal with turning into an old guy (instead of the hottie he used to be) is exhibited in many ways.

(a)  Recently, he had laser eye-surgery. And yeah I suppose he looks slightly younger than when he wore glasses.

(b)  A couple of years ago he came home one day. He had bought a new car. My first reaction was: who would buy a new car without discussing it with their wife? Until I saw the car. It was a black pimped Vauxhall Vectra with kick plates reading ‘Fast and Furious’.

(c)   My husband has also started to be more conscious about what are trendy clothes, although, he does not wear skinny jeans. Not because he doesn’t want to be in with the teens but because his muscly thighs won’t fit in them. I don’t mind. I’d rather have my husband wears loose jeans underneath which I find attractive manly thighs than have a ‘trendy’ husband whose legs are skinnier than my arms. Steve Tyler type thighs are not my thing.

(d)  For Christmas he requested and was granted a back wax. This isn’t something that has appeared with age. Oh no. The first night when we met in a Brighton pub over 14 years ago, my husband disclosed this fact. It didn’t bother him too much then and he found it a funny topic to discuss with a girl he had just met, I think. Alternatively, it could be that he was hoping to pull that night and was giving me a cleverly worded warning about what to expect when the clothes came off. Perhaps he had had disappointments in the past, with the mood turning sour with one-night-stands. I don’t know. We’ve never discussed this.

(e)  Lastly, my husband has started to use my face cream. All those years in our 20s when I bought him eye cream as a preventative measure in the battle against getting old. He never used them. Could not be bothered. I ended up binning them after years of collecting dust in the bathroom when the cream had turned into butter. He is regretting it now.

Sorry, I got side tracked. So, let’s get back to the food in Osaka. If you incorrectly think that Japanese food is just sushi you are totally mistaken. Thinking that Japanese live on sushi only is like thinking that Finnish people live on Vodka and English people live on chips (although the latter might be true for some Liverpudlians). I mean, there are great sushi places here but I much prefer raw chicken to raw fish. Yes, raw chicken. The other night we walked around Shinsaibashi and saw this really nice looking restaurant and went in (see photo).

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The menu should have alarmed us to what the food was. But we assumed that ‘chicken cooked rare’ was just another ungrammatical English sentence produced by a Japanese menu-writer. You see, we assumed that ‘rare’ meant not common i.e. not served in many places. It didn’t of course dawn on us that they would serve the chicken lightly flame-grilled but ultimately raw. When we got the first two platefuls of chicken we realized that it was rare (see photo), but because we had also ordered some duck we assumed that the meat on the plates must be the duck dishes that we ordered. When the waiter then brought the duck dishes, it finally hit home that all the meat was raw. We’ve since learned that eating raw chicken is not unheard of in Japan. Apparently, when you eat raw chicken you need to trust the chef that the chicken is fresh, and that they have killed the chicken only shortly before cooking it, and that the chicken come from farms where they conduct tests to ensure that the chicken do not carry salmonella. At this point, we had two options: stop eating and ordering a large glass of vodka for each of us (to kill the salmonella retrospectively in the stomach) or to carry on eating. We decided to put the wellbeing of our intestines in the hands of the chef in that restaurant and carried on eating. Partly because there was a pregnant lady with her partner and mother(in-law) sitting in the table next to us and a couple with a 1-year-old in a Ergobaby carrier so we thought that the food must be safe to eat. I really do have to say that that raw chicken was to die for and none of us got poorly. Although, our wallets got considerably lighter. £80 we paid for those few pieces of chicken and duck. That is a lot for Osaka (and for us)! Since I’m guessing your bowel will not thank me for promoting raw chicken if you do end up with a bad tummy upset it might be worth mentioning that even though our raw chicken did not make us poorly, please do not go and start undercooking your chicken at home. Tesco’s (England) or Prisma’s (Finland) chicken is much more likely to contain salmonella than our raw chicken in that Japanese restaurant.

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Typical Osaka foods are: Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki. The former are our son’s favourite. Whenever we walk down the Dotombori-restaurant street about 250 m from our apartment we absolutely have to buy these octopus dumplings. They are batter balls with one or two small pieces of octopus, scraps of tempura, green onion, and ginger fried in small round tins often street side by extremely quick handed ‘chefs’ (see photo). I wanted to post some video footage of these guys turning the balls around at the speed of light but the WordPress web-page did not allow me to do it. So, you might want to try and find Takoyaki chefs in action on YouTube. It’s really amazing how fast they do it. I mean, if you or I tried to turn the dumplings with those sticks as fast as the chefs do, we would look more like Edward Scissorhands in fast-forward.

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The dumplings usually come in a tray of 6s, 8s, 10s or 12s with Japanese mayonnaise and dried fish flakes and you can choose which sauce (a bit like BBQ sauce) you want with your balls. I know that this description is unlikely to make you start salivating, but they really are super-delicious! So much so that our son is now so addicted to octopus that we have to buy whole octopus tentacles in the shop and cook them at home (see picture). He’s at his happiest when he has a boiled tentacle with a little salt on his plate.

IMG_0004Okonomiyaki is referred to as Japanese pizza or Japanese pancake (see photos). It is made of cabbage, noodles and batter and some meat/prawns/vegetables and some brown and white sauce. I know, doesn’t sound much but neither does my friend Fiona’s beetroot soup but I can assure you both are to die for. You often have a hotplate in front of you on the table on which you cook your own Okonomiyaki after the waiter has brought you all the ingredients for it. However, we are yet to cook our own. Whenever we’ve been to Okonomiyaki restaurants the waiter/waitress has not had faith in our ability to handle cabbage, noodles, bacon, batter, a hot plate and some spatulas. So, they have always made the pancake for us. Other times, the staff makes it on their hotplate in the kitchen and bring it to you when it is ready. Both methods result in an absolutely delicious dish.

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My husband and I went out for food the other night and ended up in this two table strong place with an interesting interior. It was manned with a lovely Japanese chef (see photo).

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My husband ordered a beer but the chef refused and said that his restaurant’s speciality was sake. So we had sake, and he taught us the ‘correct’ way to drink it. Apparently, you are supposed to have to first sip without touching the glass. So, you need to bend over the glass on the table and take a gulp. After that first gulp, you can touch the glass and drink the sake as you would any other drink. He also persuaded us to try some of his speciality dishes and we gave him a free hand to produce anything. The first dish was lush. As far as I can tell, it was cold pieces of pumpkin with fried mince beef and some spices (see photo). The second was noodles with, we think, prawn roe (see photo). My husband loved it! The Chef introduced the third and final dish as ‘Japanese soul food’. It was some kind of a broth with really fatty pieces of meat, two pieces of boiled root vegetable (I think) and two pieces of something purplish and jelly-like with black dots on them (see photo). This ‘soul food’ was… erm… a bit weird. In all honesty, we didn’t like it, but because we didn’t want to hurt our Chef’s feelings, given that he was so eager to introduce the Japanese cuisine, we ate it all, or, to be more precise, my husband ate it all.

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The small sake and soul food place is not the only small restaurant in Osaka. Tiny Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki places, Italian and Spanish places, Korean BBQ places, Chinese places and traditional Japanese food places are everywhere. Many of these consist of just the bar (with 5-10 stools) or the bar and two or three tables.

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There are also lots of lovely little noodle and soup shops (see photo). The menu in these places is not exactly huge, but the taste compensates for the lack of choice. These places are like gold dust. The food is really great, and these types of bowls of soup with a bowl of rice usually cost between 600 and 1000 yen (£4-6, €5-7;). These little places make you feel like you are in someone’s kitchen having this food. This is not only because you sit right next to the chef who is cooking the food but also because these places may for instance have a hanging rack of tea-towels right next to the counter creating an extremely informal atmosphere.

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I think I’ve written enough for now, but I might have to rustle up a second helping on Japanese food sometime in the near future.

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