Most people planning a trip to Japan will invariably put Tokyo at the top of their list. But Osaka — Japan’s third most populated city — is a destination that is a feast for the senses as well as the belly, with no shortage of things to see and do.
Osaka's nickname is Tenka no Daidokoro, or “the nation's kitchen,” which refers to its fame as a rice trade hub during the Edo Period. In modern times, however, travelers will find it’s a great starting point for a culinary journey. Of course, you will find sushi, ramen, yakitori, and other Japanese favorites, but here are our top five regional specialties that will give you a true taste of Osaka.
Okonomiyaki is definitely a must-try, as this is Osaka’s most famous dish. It’s kind of like a pancake because of its preparation, but more like an omelette because it’s so eggy. The filling or batter includes shredded cabbage, other vegetables, and chopped protein like pork, chicken, or seafood. What makes it, though, is the drizzle of savory okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, nori and bonito flakes.
Okonomiyaki is everywhere in Osaka, so it’s hard to choose which one is truly the best. And everyone will have their opinion on which one is the best! Umeda, however, is an area of Osaka that's famous for okonomiyaki, so head there and find Fukutaro, which is known for its large patties.
7F, Grand Front Osaka, 4-20, Ofuka-cho, Kita-ku, Osaka
Osaka is also known for takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack of batter filled with tako, or octopus, ginger, and green onions. It’s cooked in a special pan with a special technique of rolling the batter with skewers with perfect timing so the entire ball cooks evenly and with the right texture. Without the right moves, you can end up with a mushy blob.
You will find many takoyaki stands throughout Osaka, so don't worry about not getting your fill. One of the popular spots is Yamachan, known for their distinctively crispy outer layer of takoyaki and melty insides. Their batter is also famous, as it's not just flavored with chicken stock, but fruits and vegetables as well.
1-2-34 Abenosuji Abeno-Ku, Osaka
Who doesn’t love fried food on a stick? Osaka’s famous kushikatsu is pretty much anything you can put on a skewer, bread and deep fry. Usually it’s vegetables, meat and seafood, but some places get creative and skewer cheese, mochi, eggs and dumplings. The most important part is the sauce: you take your food and dip it once into a dish or pot, and if you can’t eat it in one bite, use some cabbage (which is served on the side) to scoop up more sauce … but don’t ever double dip!
One of the more well-known chains in Osaka is called Daruma, which you can find in Dotonburi, a famous dining district in Osaka with almost every kind of Japanese restaurant, from traditional to modern.
3-1-3 Umeda, Kita-ku, Osaka
If you are adventurous, when you go to yakiniku, find a place that serves horumon. No, it’s not hormones! “Horumon” means “innards” in Japan — more specifically, part of the connective tissue between the cow’s stomachs, which is also known as the milk guts. It’s kind of fatty, so when you put it on the grill the flame will go a little higher. Be sure to cook it until it shrinks and curls; your server can help you figure out when to pull it off the grill. It’s wonderful and rich, and since it’s marinated it should have a flavor almost like bacon fat.
This dish originated in Osaka but is popular throughout Japan, especially with women, because it’s said horumon is good for the skin and complexion.
My personal favorite was Ryu-Nosu, because they also serve raw organ meat (heart, liver, etc.). This was popular in Japan until a few years ago, when a chain of restaurants didn't check their product and their meat made people sick. It's now less easy to find restaurants that serve raw organ meat, although the majority of such restaurants serve good-quality products that aren’t a health hazard.
2-3-32, Shinsaibashisuji, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka
While we're talking about yakiniku, be sure to try Matsusaka/Matsuzaka beef, a special meat that you can only get in Japan. The rare Japanese black cattle — virgin cows, specifically — are raised in Mie, a region close to Osaka, under strict conditions and take three years to mature. Due to its scarcity, flavor, and high marbling ratio, Matsusaka is considered one of the three big beefs in Japan, alongside Kobe and Omi.
Since you will likely be eating a lot in Dotonburi, you can easily find Matsusaka Yakiniku M, where you can get more than a dozen cuts of this gorgeous beef and sear on a tabletop grill. The nice thing is the option to order items a la carte, or go with a combination platter with various cuts of beef and assorted vegetables.
Matsusaka Yakiniku M
1-1-19 Namba, Chuo-ku, Osaka
There is more — so much more — to dining in Osaka, with their kitsune udon, unique sukiyaki, manju, beef stew, ume, ... and the list goes on. Once you get there, you'll find that it will be difficult to decide which area specialties are your favorites, too.