It is no secret that those from Osaka hold in their hearts a particular affinity for all things edible, an innate passion that each new citizen seems to be born with. This enjoyment of food and drink has even evolved to the point in which a new term has been coined for their activities: Kuidaore. Translated directly, it means simply to “ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” In more common terms, it is applied to a (likely alcohol-fueled) food binge in the heart of Osaka that escalates to the point at which one actually falls down as a result of the excess. And after it is all over, tradition states that you then pick yourself back up, grab a few new friends, and get your picture taken with the mascot of the area, the Kuidaore Taro (or Kuidaore Clown). Personally, I’m all for the unique gustatory pleasures that the area offers — in fact, that’s largely the reason I came to Osaka in the first place, as I have yet to find a locale that can force me to collapse – but don’t worry, I’m not getting my picture taken with any creepy clown.
Given the bounty of restaurants and bars in the city, you could choose almost any neighborhood in all of Osaka as an embarkation point for your own culinary feast. It wouldn’t, however, be a true Kuidaore quest unless you head down to the Dotonbori (pronounced Dotombori) area of town: a crowded, hectic avenue highlighted by an uncountable number of neon-lights and overblown signposts that is then flanked by a series of shopping arcades and restaurant-strewn side streets. This entire section of town exists for no other reason than to entertain the masses and feed the hungry – have a look:
Getting to the heart of the matter (the food) and in keeping with the tradition that each town and region in Japan boasts its own specific dishes native to that specific area, Osaka is famous for two creative and unique dishes: Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki, the former being a grilled, savory pancake-like creation and the latter being octopus dumplings.
Before diving full force into the Kuidaore onslaught, we’ll start things off with a snack and introduce the Takoyaki first. Originally invented as a handy street food, Takoyaki vendors can be found all over the city, selling their delicious dumplings of joy to hungry passersby for only a few dollars. The small bite-sized balls themselves are made using a flour-based dough that is stuffed with chunks of octopus tentacle (you can usually feel the suckers in your mouth), ginger, green onion, and anything else the chef happens to have lying around. It is then topped with a sweet, teriyaki-like Takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, aonori (seaweed powder), and dried fish flakes known as katsuobushi, served in a cute cedar-paper dish with a few toothpicks, and handed over while it is still mouth-searingly hot.
The other popular dish served all over Osaka is that of Okonomiyaki. Sometimes likened to savory pancake, an omelette, or even a Japanese pizza, it is, in reality, its own unique creation. The base of Okonomiyaki is made from a batter of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs, and a hearty handful of chopped cabbage. After that, any toppings or fillings are up to you (the “Okonomi” in the name translates as “what you like”), but common combinations often include chunks of pork, bacon, prawns, squid, octopus, kimchi, cheese, or even noodles. As a side note, in Osaka (and the Kansai region in general) the ingredients are all mixed together and thrown on the griddle in a large mass, but there are several other regional variations, such as in Hiroshima, where the ingredients are all layered individually. And much like that of Takoyaki, the finished product is then topped with a sweet and savory Okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, aonori, and a heaping pile of Katsuobushi.
When entering an Okonomiyaki joint, you’ll quickly notice that each table has its own built-in griddle in the middle of the table. Depending upon the specific restaurant, you are sometimes just handed the ingredients and are expected to do the grilling yourself, but more often, the chefs behind the counter will do all the work first, and then just slide the finished product onto your griddle to keep it warm:
With Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki out of the way, it’s time to dive in and get the rest of the Kuidaore feast underway. Behold, my epic journey through the restaurants, street food stalls, eating establishments, izakayas, and dive bars of Osaka — though all of these dishes (might not) have been all in the same sitting. My stomach may be made of iron, but even I have a few limits:
…and I’m spent. That’s about all I’ve got from Osaka for now. My time in Japan is rapidly drawing to a close, but before I move on to my next country, I still have a few trips outside the city planed to occupy my last few days. Until then, Kampai from Dotonbori!