Of the many activities in which the Japanese pride themselves, cooking great food is the prominent one with which I most energetically agree. I must have been in Japan only a few hours when I dove mouth-first into my first authentic bowl of Japanese curry. As delicious as I thought the curry was, I still could have gone for a bowl of tortellini with Alfredo sauce. Then again, that was only my first day here, and I was still in American mode.
Japanese food is world famous, and Japan’s abundance of restaurants often reflects international tastes. In Osaka, not only can you try amazing regional dishes but you can also find an authentic Mexican restaurant or a McDonald’s.
Personally, even in America, I usually avoided McDonald’s and other fast food places. In Japan, fast food doesn’t imply an unhealthy meal like in America, but only what the term literally means: food served fast. The fact that Japanese fast food is healthy goes without saying.
Yoshinoya is a restaurant found in every busy area of Osaka, and there is one within minutes of every train station. For a quick, inexpensive meal, this place really stands out as the Japanese answer to McDonald’s, but one gets what he or she pays for.
Although I love Yoshinoya’s Japanese curry, pork kimchi and bar-style eating atmosphere, some Yoshinoya restaurants are a bit dirty and full of asocial businessmen who are too busy to waste even a minute of time to eat casually. To me, the food is good, but in order to really get a taste of Osaka’s famous dishes, one must go elsewhere.
Okonomiyaki may be one of the best entrees available in Osaka. Picture a light pancake minus the butter and syrup. Add savory ingredients before cooking and then top it off with thin bacon strips, light barbecue sauce and a bit of mayonnaise if desired, and one has okonomiyaki, the soul food of Osaka. Along with this dish, takoyaki is another cherished Osaka specialty. While the tongue translates it as “fried octopus,” the taste buds will tell you it means “delicious.”
Takoyaki is a dough ball filled with cooked octopus pieces. It is part sweet snack and part hearty appetizer. Don’t worry about biting down on rigid tentacle chunks because this snack is filled with only the softer parts of the octopus. Some may hear the word octopus and immediately avoid eating takoyaki, but being picky is okay. That’s more for me.
The days of staring at a menu and choosing between a pizza slice, a sub or a burger are long gone for me.
Takoyaki is served at takoyaki stands or small takoyaki restaurants while okonomiyaki is served at okonomiyaki restaurants. These two foods can only be found together in two situations of which I know. One is in the lunch box section of supermarkets or convenience stores and the other is at any izakaya.
Now don’t be troubled by all these foreign terms. Izakaya is only the fourth Japanese word that I have used in today’s column. I’m sure no one minds learning a few Japanese words if they are words relating to food, right?
An izaak is not only a tavern/restaurant but also an answer to the stress of the grueling Japanese workweek. These places are perfect for large parties of coworkers because they have an extensive and eclectic menu of small food servings, which are perfect for sharing around the table.
On the menu at any izakaya one can find anything from mini-pizza to cow tongue, salads to whole-cooked fish and from beer to wine to sake and, of course, from okonomiyaki to takoyaki.
Now, repeat after me: okonomiyaki. takoyaki, Izakaya. Wow! Great pronunciation.
Now that today’s Japanese food lesson is over, feel free to dig in at a local Japanese restaurant. But even if it’s good, it probably won’t match up to getting authentic Japanese food in Japan.
But I have that under control.
Daniel Shimek is a former Oracle graphic arts manager who now lives in Japan.