Chefs and culinary tourists alike consider Tokyo the world's best food city, and for good reason. But it's Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, that's known locally as the nation's kitchen.
Unlike the capital, which built its reputation on refined Michelin-starred kaiseki and sushi omakase restaurants, vibrant, lively Osaka is best known for its street food.
Whether you're wandering along the canals in Dotonbori, checking out the fresh seafood at Kuromon market, or on the hunt for a snack after visiting the cup noodle museum (instant noodles were invented in Osaka, and there's a museum celebrating it), you'll find stalls slinging everything from molten takoyaki to crispy kushikatsu.
Here are five dishes that prove there's nowhere better to kuidaore ("eat until you drop") than Osaka.
This Osaka-born, golf ball-size street snack is made by cooking a dashi-flavoured batter in a special moulded pan, studding it with pieces of octopus and green onion, then topping it with takoyaki sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes. Stalls specialising in the snack are everywhere in Osaka, particularly in areas such as Dotonbori. But to eat them as the locals do – with beer – head to Takotako King. Here, the piping hot batter balls come in various flavours including traditional, soy sauce or shio (plain salt). If you're after a more refined takoyaki experience, make a booking at Takoriki. This eight-seat takoyaki restaurant uses organic ingredients and makes everything, including the takoyaki sauce, from scratch. Alongside traditional takoyaki you'll find balls topped with finely grated French cheese or flavoured with wasabi, takoyaki onsen (two balls served in a broth), takoyaki omelette and deep-fried takoyaki, which come with a ranch-style dipping sauce. If you can't get a booking, Takoriki also does takeaway.
Okonomiyaki is a savoury pancake made from flour, egg, shredded cabbage and myriad toppings such as thinly sliced pork, prawns, cheese and other vegetables. Okonomi literally means "to one's liking", so it's up to you what goes into it. Then, like takoyaki, it's finished with a special okonomiyaki sauce, kewpie mayonnaise, sliced green onions and bonito flakes. The best okonomiyaki experiences are at dedicated restaurants, where you dine teppanyaki-side and eat directly off the grill. Most are pretty casual – okonomiyaki is considered comfort food, after all – but there are a few places that elevate the experience. At okonomiyaki and natural wine bar Pasania, chef Yoshio Nakagawa serves the dish as the final course in a short set menu. The preceding dishes change, but might kick off with tiny squid, guts intact, lightly touched by the teppan grill, followed by a poriyal (stir-fry) of spiced potato and cauliflower with perfectly cooked wagyu steak.
Curry might not have originated in Japan (it's an example of yoshoku, or Japanised foreign food, and was purportedly introduced by the British in the 19th century), but today it's as popular across the country as ramen – including in Osaka. Milder, thicker and sweeter than those you'll find in other parts of Asia, Japanese curry is typically served on rice, often with either chicken or pork katsu, and sometimes a boiled (or raw) egg. If you can find New Light – its facade is obscured behind posters and old newspapers – you'll be rewarded with one of the most delicious examples of curry in the country. Rich and soupy, topped with a perfectly thin and crisp pork katsu, it's instantly obvious why this dish has become a Japanese staple. For a completely different take, the version at Kyu Yamu-tei is spicier and more reminiscent of its Indian roots, although the ingredients are much more eclectic – think eggplant and capsicum topped with stretchy cheese, pickles and yoghurt.
Like curry, butaman (steamed pork buns) didn't originate in Japan. But the 551Horai chain, which specialises in butaman (sometimes called nikuman, particularly outside of Kansai), is an Osaka original. There are multiple locations around the city, often in train stations, and you'll probably need to queue – apparently about 170,000 of these fluffy, pork-stuffed buns are sold each day. Aside from butaman, which come in lucky even numbers with tiny sachets of karashi (Japanese mustard), 551Horai also serves shumai dumplings and gyoza. They make a good train snack if you're planning to take the shinkasen (bullet train) between cities.
If yakitori and tempura got together, the result would be kushikatsu: skewers of meat, seafood or vegetables battered or crumbed and deep-fried to a golden crunch. Like takoyaki and okonomiyaki, kushikatsu originated in Osaka (in the Shinsekai neighbourhood) and while you can find it in Tokyo and other cities in Japan, it's naturally one to try here. One of the most famous places to eat kushikatsu is at Daruma. There are about 40 different skewers on the menu, including beef tongue, pork cutlet, cheese, mochi, whole mentaiko (cod roe), asparagus, potato and garlic. Double-dipping skewers into the sweet, tangy sauce is forbidden, as the sauce is generally shared between customers. If you need more sauce, you have to use a piece of cabbage to spoon it over your kushikatsu. There are several Daruma locations around the city (including in Shinsekai) but an easy one to find is in Dotonbori – just look for the giant fibreglass chef.
Tako Tako King, takotakoking.com
New Light, 2 Chome-16-13 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Kyu Yamu-tei, kyuyamutei.web.fc2.com
551 Horai, 551horai.co.jp