The obsession with food and development of the famed Osaka cuisine date back centuries. John Ashburne shows why the city’s reputation as the “finest kitchen under heaven” is well earned.

Western observers have not always been kind to Osaka. “No destination for sightseers,” announces National Geographic. “One of the grimiest, most chaotic and most cramped metropolises in the country,” bemoans Gateway
to Japan. The  “urban equivalent of the Elephant Man,”  jeers

Fortunately, this all falls on deaf ears to the local populace, who don’t care about the view from the restaurant
window. They’re too busy engaged in the ancient local tradition of kuidaore – eating themselves into financial ruin. This is what makes Osaka so exciting, and an unmissable Japan experience.

Japan expert and writer Alex Kerr is one of those captivated by the city’s
quirkiness. He is quoted in Traveler’s Tales Guide Japan, saying:
“Osaka is my favorite city in Japan. Osaka is where the fun is: it has
the best entertainment districts in Japan, the most lively youth
neighborhood, the most charismatic geisha madams and the most colorful

”It also has a monopoly on humor, to the extent that in order to succeed as a popular comedian it is almost obligatory to study in Osaka and speak the Osaka dialect.”

Back to Osakans’ obsession with eating, one must point out here that the phrase is largely
metaphorical, as few citizens actually manage to render themselves
insolvent through gluttony. Master-chef Takao Sugiura of the Tsuji
Culinary Institute defines it simply as Osakans’ willingness to  “spend
more than others on food”, and with the city’s mad abundance of fine
quality restaurants, and its brilliant local cuisine, who could blame

The city’s kuidaore mecca is the Dotombori Suji arcade. It
came to fame in the 1600s as the place for the city’s new merchant
classes to do business, visit the new fledgling kabuki theatres, and
naturally, eat to excess. Today it is synonymous with Osaka’s love
affair with food. Wall-to-wall restaurants, and at night, a dizzying
“fairyland of gorgeous neon”, it boasts some of the city’s most famous

Look for the crab specialist Kani-Doraku Honten, with
its giant mechanical crustacean signboard, the nationally renowned
Ramen shops Kinryu and Kamukura and the legendary Otako (more later).

Last but not least, don’t forget the city’s two de-facto symbols, the giant
“Glico man” billboard, and Kuidaore Taro the automaton doll,
half-clown, half geeky food-crazed salary man. The latter bangs his
drum, surrounded by tourists, outside the giant Cuidaore Restaurant, a
contender for the world’s largest restaurant.

Yet Dotombori is not alone. Kuidaore fans gather in youth-filled Shinsaibashi, Amerika-mura
and the narrow roofed arcades of Namba. All food life is here, in
startling juxtaposition. Japanese fast food outlets jostle with kebab
houses, working-class canteens, high-class Ryotei and, of course, an
all-women Danish cheesecake outlet, where the customers wait two deep
on the sidewalk.

An older, wealthier crowd congregates among the
swish high-rise modern hotels of Umeda, with its sky-view top-class
restaurants and classy foreign fare, while in nearby Kita old-school
masters ply their Kuidaore trade with sukiyaki, shabu-shabu, sushi and
fugu. It is an epicurean vision of paradise.

The skyscrapers are new, but the obsession with food, and the development of the famed
Osaka cuisine, or Osaka ryori date back centuries. By the late 16th
century, Osaka was already known as tenka no daidokoro, meaning “the
finest kitchen under heaven”. For the first time in history, its
hardworking residents had money to spend, while its new successful
merchants were keen to plough cash into the burgeoning pleasure

Even more crucially, there was a bountiful source of the finest local ingredients, which allowed Osaka chefs to develop a uniquely light but deep dashi stock, which would lead, in turn, to the evolution of the sophisticated,

The fertile farmlands around the city provided the beans for the essential Usukuchi Shoyu soy sauce. A plethora of
super-fresh sea-fish was available from Osaka Bay, including the prized
katakuchi iwashi Japanese sardine, so crucial to the  “Osaka taste”.
Access to the Seto Naikai inland sea and the close geographical
proximity to the Tosa district in Shikoku also meant that the finest
katsuobushi bonito flakes seaweed were available, and the indispensable
konbu dried kelp could be brought in by sea from Hokkaido. All the
ingredients, literal and metaphorical, were in place. A new food
culture was to be born. Osaka’s own.

So what is it that Osakans seek to bankrupt themselves by feasting upon? I am wary to begin with such humble blue-collar staples, but takoyaki and okonomiyaki are simply Osaka icons.

For most Japanese people, Osaka is the city of takoyaki – those frightfully
innuendo-laden “octopus balls”. Everywhere you move in Osaka, you’ll
see a stylised octopus-drawing advertising the spherical wheat
flour-batter pancakes containing diced octopus, shredded cabbage and
other assorted vegetables, which are served topped with katsuobushi
dried bonito flakes and the owner’s  “special sauce”. Busloads of
vacationing school children line up for them in droves at the outdoor
stalls, yatai, which populate Dotombori Suji.

At Otako, the queue stretches around the block. Housewives and students can’t get enough.
Off-duty salary men scarf them down at the stands alongside the
Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy theatre in Namba. They are cheap, cheery,
filling, and very Osaka.

Running a close second in the Osakans’
dish of choice is okonomiyaki. Often described, erroneously, as
“Japanese pizza”, it is a wheat flour-and-egg savoury pancake topped
with “whatever you feel like” (the  “konomi” part of the name,
“yaki” means just cooked or grilled). Most popular toppings are beef,
shrimp, pork and squid, with finely chopped vegetables and again,
cabbage. The ensuing ensemble is cooked in front of you on a hotplate,
then topped with mayonnaise, sweet or spicy brown sauce, and aonori
seaweed. Those of you on a diet need not apply.

It would be difficult to truly bankrupt yourself on these two favourites, but a
trip to the local sushiya may well place a serious challenge to your
wallet if not your waistline. But this is where the  “real” Osaka-ryori
starts. The city’s version of Japan’s most famous culinary export is
not the well-known lightly vinegared nigiri-zushi, a dare-we-say Tokyo
invention, where the fish is hand-pressed onto rice, served with wasabi
horseradish; nor is it the rolled makizushi version. Osaka sushi is a
kind of oshizushi, where the rice and fish is compressed into a wooden
mould, or box (hence its alternative name hakozushi or box-sushi) and
then thinly sliced.

Osakans love tai-no-hakozushi sea bream sushi
and batterazushi, a very strong, intentionally  “fishy” mackerel dish.
It is not for the faint-hearted, but is wonderful with a glass of
chilled Osaka-brewed sake such as Ikeda-district’s Gosshun.

Noodles rate highly on the Osaka gourmet list. Mimiu Honten, literally the
“beautiful, beautiful rabbit” in the Honmachi District, between Umeda
and Shinsaibashi, is rightly famed for its udonsuki-nabe, white wheat
noodles served in a hot broth in superb  “old school” rustic
surroundings. Beware though that you have to kill the still-wriggling
giant prawn by plunging it into your boiling Osaka broth.

Sublime buckwheat soba noodles are to be found at Bongu in Taisho-ku district,
where the owners have such faith in their standing with the
Kuidaore-cognoscenti that they only open for business Thursday to
Sunday. Their kamo-seiro soba with roast duck is simply sublime, and
must be had with a glass of Osaka’s own amanozake sake.

Other stars in the Osaka-ryori firmament are senba-jiru, a kind of mackerel
soup; odamaki-mushi, a savoury-custard with udon noodles; and the
unmissable hamo no bainiku-ae, the unromantic-sounding but
bliss-inducing  “pike conger with sour-plum sauce”.

However, for this self-confessed victim of kuidaore, there are only two ways to
truly eat myself into financial ruin. Either a surfeit of fugu. Or a
trip to Gataro.

Japan’s poisonous blowfish, the fugu is duly famous.
The livers of the torafugu (tiger fugu), Osaka’s favourite, contain
enough of the odourless, colourless tetrodoxin to kill 33 people. The
deadly poison is reputedly 1,250 times stronger than cyanide. No
surprising then that the Osaka locals nickname it the teppo,  “the
pistol”, for its potentially life-threatening nature. In 1975, famed
Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo 8th ordered enough teppo not only to send
him into bankruptcy, but also the afterlife. He dropped dead after four

Fortunately death-by-blowfish is rare. The skilled
artisans leave in just enough of the poison to allow it to gently numb
your lips.

Second-generation master fugu chef Sawada Yuko has not
yet knowingly assassinated any of the dozens of customers who flock
daily to his exclusive restaurant, Kouzuru Honten in Umeda. He explains
how their dynamic, butsugiri style, where the fugu is intentionally
served thickly-chopped, was created.  “The Osaka people are always in a
rush to eat themselves into bankruptcy,”  he laughs,  “so we don’t have
the time for fiddling about with fancy presentation. ” Try that, and
the sublime agoyaki, literally grilled fugu  “chin”, the most succulent
part of the fish or the hitokuchi-zushi (one-bite sushi), served with
Sichuan pepper. Sublime, but not cheap. Kouzuru Honten courses weigh in
at around ¥20,000 (US$169.70). Book in advance, especially in peak
winter season.

Yet to witness kuidaore in full swing, you don’t have
to spend millions. Just visit a thriving local izakaya, the
effervescent Japanese pub-cum-restaurants that pepper the metropolis.
One of the Osaka’s finest is Gataro, tucked beneath the railroad tracks
in Hankyu Umeda station.  “Maido! Okinii! (Welcome back! Come on in),”
yell the waiters in unison, as my eating companion and I squeeze into
the two sole remaining seats at the counter.

It’s a Friday
evening, and the place is packed. Post-workday foot-soldiers of
corporate Osaka, young couples on a date, solitary student types, and
businessmen treating favoured employees. Everyone eating like it was
his last meal. Behind the counter, the chefs work at a frenetic pace,
barking out orders and crashing pans onto the flaming gas-rings.

Presiding over the culinary maelstrom is Mori-san, or  “The Boss”.

coordinates everything with military precision. He’s a typical Osakan,
energetic, friendly, with an easy smile and a smart eye for business.
He knows what his customers want: tasty, inexpensive local fare, served
quickly, and in style.

I opt for the sublime yakitori, the
magnificent hamo ume-shiso tempura, the spicy pirikara daikon salad and
an aforementioned cold flagon of ale.

“Kuidaore?” asks
Mori-san. He waves an outstretched arm. It encompasses not only Gataro,
but Umeda, and beyond. It reaches out to every restaurant and stall in
this food-crazed city. He roars with laughter.  “This! This is
kuidaore! Viva kuidaore!”