By Ayako Hirayama and Osamu Maruyama / Japan News Staff WritersOsaka is obsessed with food.
Thanks to the geographical advantages of waterways and ports, the city has historically served as a logistics center where a wide variety of quality food items come together. That has helped Osaka prosper as “Japan’s kitchen,” a place where the culinary scene is often described as “kuidaore,” literally meaning “eat until you drop.”
Many of Osaka’s signature foods are flour-based dishes known collectively as konamon. For example, udon noodles made from wheat flour are now served across Japan and beyond the sea, but for people from Osaka, udon is soul food.
The udon dish known as kitsune, which means “fox,” has its origins in Osaka. It was the brainchild of Yotaro Usami, the founder of the Matsubaya restaurant, who apprenticed at a restaurant serving sushi and udon.
Usami came up with the idea of serving udon with deep-fried tofu called abura-age after being inspired by inarizushi, a type of sushi wrapped with abura-age. He served kitsune udon at his restaurant, which was established in 1893, and customers loved the sweet and salty taste of abura-age harmonizing with dashi broth made from kombu and dried bonito.
“The name kitsune udon doesn’t mean it contains fox meat. It’s made from tofu,” laughed Yoshihiro Usami, the chef and third-generation owner of the restaurant, which is now called Usamitei Matsubaya. Legend says abura-age is the favorite food of foxes.
Key ingredients are selected carefully to maintain the long-established flavor of the kitsune udon. Usami uses different varieties of bonito, which are dried for a year, and procures kombu from Kyoto. He also has soy sauce created especially for his restaurant.
Despite his commitment to quality, Usami has kept the price of the kitsune udon at ¥580 ($5).
“It’s a merchant’s pride to offer delicious food at affordable prices,” the 74-year-old Usami said.
According to Ayao Okumura, a specialist in Japanese traditional cuisine, udon was initially developed as a type of fast food for busy merchants and laborers in the Edo period (1603-1867). Osaka’s udon is typically served hot, a feature stemming from the low water quality in Osaka back in the day, which prevented the noodles from being cooled in water. As a result, dashi is regarded as crucial in Osaka for eating udon hot.
“I love udon. Many people drink it down to the last drop of dashi,” a 43-year-old male customer at the udon restaurant said.
Another typical konamon dish is takoyaki, a ball-sized snack containing bite-size pieces of octopus. Established by Tomekichi Endo in 1933, the Aizuya shop is considered to have invented takoyaki.
At the time, there was a popular flour-based snack called “rajio yaki” that contained beef tendon, but it tasted bad when it got cold. Looking for a solution, Endo tried other ingredients and eventually chose octopus. The savory flavor can be maintained even when it gets cold, helping it become a popular staple on the Osaka food scene.
Unlike takoyaki at other eateries, Aizuya’s takoyaki — which have been featured in the Michelin Guide — are served without sauce and mayonnaise to preserve the original taste, which was created when sauce was pricey and hard to come by.
“Our takoyaki infused with dashi is tasty even without sauce, so I recommend that customers eat it that way first,” said Masaru Endo, Tomekichi’s grandson and the current president of Aizuya Co. Endo plans to serve takoyaki at Intex Osaka during the G20 summit.
Okonomiyaki, a pancake-like dish with a base of flour and cabbage, is another representative Osaka food. Its taste is similar to takoyaki, but a wider variety of ingredients are used, as its name means a food on which “you can put whatever you like.”
More variations on the dish have become available amid its growing popularity among foreign travelers. Chibo Holdings Co., an okonomiyaki restaurant chain operator, now includes gluten-free okonomiyaki on its menu to attract more customers.
These konamon dishes rely heavily on dashi that creates umami, the fifth taste category after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Umami is indispensable to Japanese cuisine. Dashi was originally developed with a combination of kombu and dried bonito in the Kansai region centering on Osaka, where these two ingredients came together.
According to Okumura, umami becomes seven to eight times richer when the umami flavors of kombu and dried bonito are combined. This dashi culture has given birth to dashi-infused konamon dishes that satisfy people from Osaka, who are accustomed to such rich, savory flavors.