How the culture of Japanese cuisine meets the culture of fast food
Kani Doraku, Glico, Cui-daore...the central spot for tourists to experience Osaka’s gastronomy and comedy is definitely Dotonbori. At Dotonbori Shopping District, boasting a 400-year history, three-dimensional signboards of cows and pufferfish appear from between various Kanji letters above, and the voices of cheerful clerks talking to customers resonate on the road.
What co-exists in this land of entertainment, which has always been bustling and busy, is the culture of traditional Japanese cuisine as seen in the nickname of Osaka as “the kitchen of the nation,” as well as the culture of fast food, most notably the takoyaki. The key to connecting the two seemingly contradictory food cultures was the taste of broth that’s unique to the Kansai region, and the desire to entertain the customers.
The sentiment behind “flour foods” that satisfies hunger
"It's interesting that there are two types of food in Osaka: traditional Japanese restaurants that attract regular customers, and casual fast foods like takoyaki that are geared for the masses," says Mr. Yukihiro Kasai, who is the owner of “Creo-ru Co., Ltd.,” and the operator of four takoyaki stores. The said the company was founded by his mother in 1999, and he serves as their President and CEO. Their batter recipe, which uses seven different types of flour, completely demonstrates the so-called “mom’s taste,” which his mother had developed by herself. As Mr. Kasai had to eat a lot of Takoyaki during their trial production stage, he laughed and said, “my body eventually became one.”
“Takoyaki and okonomiyaki, which both use flour, are called “konamon” (flour foods) in the Kansai region. The history of Takoyaki itself has not reached 100 years yet, and the term was only invented about 80 years ago. Takoyaki seems to have been invented by taking radioyaki, which uses beef tendons, konjacs, etc., and infusing the elements of Hyogo prefecture’s akashiyaki, which uses octopus and eggs. In times of war and famine, the “konamons” were affordable and satisfied the appetites."
"In other regions, they had flour dumpling soups. Condiments didn’t exist back in the day, except for soup stock and soy sauce. Even under such severe circumstance, they used to devise creative ways of making delicious snacks to feed the children with. Octopuses were cheap at the time, and due to the landscape of Osaka, they were easily able to procure ingredients such as kelp. It’s essentially a dish that was born out of Osaka’s climate and history.”
The authentic taste comes from soup stock and tools
Nowadays, the takoyaki industry has many successful stores which originally started in Tokyo. What is then the deciding factor that differentiates them from the “authentic” Kansai flavor?
“It’s probably the soup stock. A soup stock made with kelp and bonito is the key to the “Kansai” flavor. Although the prices are completely different, we, along with fancy traditional Japanese restaurants both use the Kansai soup stock. That’s something we cannot compromise. It’s lighter in color, and gentler in flavor compared to the Kanto version.
"As a Japanese, the culture of soup stock that extracts the umami from ingredients is something that I’d like to leave behind. Even if you use the same ingredients, it will no longer be a takoyaki without the soup stock.”
Another important element is the tools that create a unique texture called "sotokari nakatoro” (crispy outer layer, but gooey on the inside), which Kansai people love. It’s said that it’s important for the batter to turn out as thin, moist and fluffy as much as possible.
“Some Chinese visitors mistakenly think that our product is raw (laughs). Since long ago, konamons had to be that gooey on the inside to satisfy the Kansai taste. The tools are also very important for this. We use iron pots, even though it’s very difficult to maintain. It conducts heat and cools down slowly. Copper pots are used in many other stores, but with copper, heat transmission becomes too strong, which leads to heavy, floury after-taste. Since the balance of fire and water is important for cooking, the temperature of the iron plate becomes naturally different between okonomiyaki, which needs to come out fluffy, and yakisoba, which needs to come out with crunchy cabbages. In the past, there was a takoyaki maker in every household in Osaka, but my hope is for people to enjoy takoyaki which cannot be easily made at home.”
It’s certainly true that once you engulf a whole takoyaki, with its hot and fluffy texture, you’ll certainly want to eat more than one. Dishes like yakisoba create a gastronomic symphony in your mouth, as various ingredients provide different textures.
Entering the age of selling experiences on top of things
Looking back, the city of Osaka was inactive only 10 years ago. However, many foreign tourists now travel to and from Dotonbori. Mr. Kasai’s store, “Creo-ru” took advantage of the G20 Osaka Summit by welcoming foreign guests with the limited edition “welcome takoyaki.” Mr. Takeda, their store manager who cooks steaming-hot takoyaki at the storefront, has mastered how to welcome customers in an astonishing 10 languages.
“It’s quite a pressure to spark a conversation and cook while being video-graphed,” says Mr. Kasai. “But nevertheless, Osaka merchants need to talk to their customers. Every visitor has a high expectation of Osaka as a “comedic” place. Even now, you have to pretend that you were shot by making noises if a student visitor pretends to shoot you with a pistol (laughs). I believe that social interaction is critical to restaurant operation, and wouldn’t want anyone to feel disappointed when they visit us. It’s no longer the age of simply selling objects."
Although the rent in this neighborhood has risen considerably, there are many business owners who wish to have their own signboard at the famous Dotonbori. As it was finally decided that Osaka Expo will be launched in 2025, we hope that visitors enjoy the lively ambiance of Osaka with its people constantly trying to advance themselves. That wouldn’t be just mentally, but even physically, Every store is not only focusing on psychological tactics, but also physical strategies, store owners would be advancing their signboards little by little without being too obvious (laughs).”
It’s also true that the situation of resources and ingredients related to takoyaki are changing very rapidly. First, octopus, a crucial ingredient for takoyaki, is becoming a luxury ingredient. Those from countries that used to refer to an octopus as “devil fish” are now starting to eat it more frequently, and as overfishing is prohibited, the total volume of octopuses that are exported to Japan is dropping. There’s also the problem of food waste. The Kansai region is known for the cooking method referred to as “no-waste cooking,” which uses ingredients to the fullest.
Mr. Kasai himself never wastes a single cabbage leaf, which he uses to produce his soup stock or pickles. “Once you know the farmer in person, you’ll never be able to waste a single crop,” he clearly said.
“From now on, I think it would be a great idea to spell the word ‘takoyaki’ in English in all caps (‘TAKOYAKI’), and use other ingredients besides octopus such as chicken and shrimp. But one must never forget Osaka’s soup stock culture, and the pride of running a business here. And most importantly, to have customers enjoy their time here. I think having ate a ‘delicious meal’ is included in the process of ‘having fun.’ That’s something we shouldn’t forget.”
If you think about, even the world-famous sushi and tempura were once a street food if you follow its origin. There may soon be a day when the round, cute ball that represents Osaka’s food culture will become the next international sensation.
Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau
Photos: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation