"Hidden gem" are probably two of the most overused words in the foodophile vocabulary.
So it was really refreshing to find a restaurant that literally was just that: Hidden and a Gem.
Let me explain...
One of Osaka's most famous landmarks is the Umeda Sky Building - this towering structure and it's "Sky Garden" (not really a garden, more of a 360-degree viewing deck) offers a stunning bird's eye view of the city. In the basement of this building lies a very strange food hall unlike any I have ever seen before. No bright lights and busy tables swarming with shoppers and tourists here. Instead, when you head down into the basement you are faced with a series of dim (well, that is being generous - dark is more like it!) alleyways that wind their way around in the style of a traditional Japanese village. It may sound very tourist-trap-like but to be honest it doesn't seem like it as it is near deserted.
Or I should say, looks deserted.
I had read about Okonomiyaki Kiji restaurant on several blogs as the best place to try Osaka's famous savoury pancakes - Okonomiyaki. So after a few pointless rounds of wandering - all the signs were in Japanese and not a soul in sight to point us in the right direction - we finally found what seemed like a promising sign. It showed the do-it-yourself hot plate that is used to cook okonomiyaki to your liking.
On poking our head in, we were told this wasn't the place we were looking for but one of the staff said he will take us to the other restaurant (very obliging in showing us around to the competition - but he did it with the calm resignation of someone who seemed like he had done this many times before.)
We were deposited in front of a restaurant that by all appearances looked shut. Our handy guide disappeared and we were left wondering what to do - until a woman passing by urged us to slide open the door, enthusiastically reassuring us that Okonomiyaki Kiji was indeed open.
And there it was. A true hidden gem. There would have been no way of knowing it was there if we weren't ushered straight into the door.
The cheerful old owner welcomed us with a big grin, gestured at us to wait behind the line of people already looking to get seated in this tiny rabbit hole and after determining where we were from. "India? Ok, vegetarian only? Beef ok? Pork ok?" rapidly started mixing up the okonomiyaki batter (a mix of flour, yam and egg with various toppings - Okonomiyaki literally means "okonomi - what you like" + "yaki - fried").
On a trip that was literally star-studded by an unbelievably high number of exceptional dining experiences, eating at Okonomiyaki Kiji was definitely one of the best. And it was definitely the most inviting.
We were lucky to get prime seats at the counter. The patron plopped the pancake onto the sizzling teppan hot plate in front of us and then proceeded to cook it on both sides, flipping it with an iron spatula which is also the eating instrument of choice for this plump pancake.
As instructed "no slicing". The owner deftly demonstrated the best way to attack the okonomiyaki - quick firm jabs with the sharp edge of the spatula to cut the pancake into wedges before scooping it up with the flat side and shoveling it straight into our mouths - perfect!
The okonomiyaki is usually filled with shredded cabbage, dashi, spring onion, shrimp, squid, bacon-like fatty pork belly, thin strips of beef - as the name says, whatever you like - and once done is covered with thick, sweet otafuku sauce, aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and Japanese mayonnaise. Where has this pancake been all my life? It is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.
Osaka residents are people after my own heart. Literally, everyone in Osaka is eating - all the time! They even have a word for it "kuidaore" which means "eat until you drop".
The city definitely embraces its kuidaore culture whole-heartedly. Osaka is filled with lines of locals waiting to get their hit of takoyaki (fried octopus in batter balls), smoky and sweet roasted snow crab, slivers of fugu fish, melt-in-your-mouth wagyu short ribs... cheesy tarts, sweet soya-sauce filled mochi... you really don't know where to start or end.
For the best round up of Osaka's unbelievably delicious street food culture, there are few places to match Dotonbori. With its crazy moving giant crab and octopus shop signs and even crazier jingles of "Ya Ya Takoyaki" sung to the tune of "Alleluia", Dontonbori is heaven on a plate for any foodie heading to Osaka.
I can't wait to go back!
Click through the gallery for some of my highlights of Osaka's best eating out district.
Anyone who knows me will know I am a bit a kitchen klutz - hot or sharp objects and I do not mix well. Well, actually it's probably the opposite - we can't quite stay away from each other. I have had more close encounters with stoves, ovens, hot pans, boiling water, splattered oil, sharp scissors and forks plunging into my feet than I care to remember.
So hankering after a really sharp knife is probably not in my best interest in the long run. To date, my kitchen drawers have mainly been stocked with knives well past their prime - blunt instruments probably being the best option for a clumsy cutter who lives alone.
But I have spent many an evening envying beautifully sharp knives in the kitchens of friends and family. So when I booked my tickets to Japan last month, a knife made by a famous Japanese knife master shot to the very top of my shopping list. In fact, if it was the only thing I came back with, that sounded just fine to me!
Japanese knives are widely regarded to be among the best money can buy. With a long and proud tradition of metal working, knife smiths are seen as artists who take time and effort over their creations.
Most of the best knife makers in Japan trace their heritage back to samurai sword makers. With the fall of the shogunate in the late 19th century and the restoration of the Japanese empire, many samurais lost some of their privileges, which included carrying swords. As demand for swords fell, many master sword makers re-purposed their skills to the more domestic task of making knives.
Knife making in Japan is primarily made up of three steps - forging (hizukuri), when the metal is heated and hammered into shape, honing (hazuke or togi), when the blade gets sharpened on increasingly finer whetstones, and the hafting (ezuke), when the blade is attached to a haft, or a handle. Most knives are then marked with their maker's seal and can be engraved with the names and initials of the person buying them, making them real family heirlooms.
And this is exactly what I wanted - an engraved Japanese chef's knife! As I was heading to Kyoto, there was really just one place to go - Aritsugu Fujiwara. The family has been making knives for 18 generations, passing on the forging techniques preferred by the Imperial family since 1560.
The Aritsugu shop is located in Kyoto's famous Nishiki market - a must visit for anyone keen on discovering the joys of a Japanese food market. Walking through Nishiki market on New Year's Eve as the city shopped for one of its biggest festivals was definitely an experience! But I was on a mission and a few thousand Kyotoites finishing their last-minute festive shop didn't scare me!
Picking a knife at Aritsugu can be a little intimidating, there are literally hundreds on display - specialist knives for scaling fish, dicing daikon, de-boning chicken, filleting fish, slicing sushi... the list goes on. One thing to remember when buying traditional Japanese knives is that most of them are sharpened on only one side of the blade and you need to specify if you are left or right handed. Single blade knives can take getting used to and the more common double edged knives are also available and this is what I ended up buying.
The knives can also cut a pretty deep hole in your pocket so anyone who plans on getting an entire set better take along a great big wad of yen. I decided to follow Anthony Bourdain's maxim of "all anyone really needs is a good chef's knife" and focused on getting one that I liked.
Another factor to remember is that most Japanese tend to buy carbon steel knives - which are incredibly strong and sharp but also require a great deal of daily care, cleaning and regular sharpening to avoid rust. The other option (which is also slightly kinder on the wallet) is to buy a knife with a carbon steel core and a stainless steel coating with just the carbon blade edge exposed, and this is what seemed like the most practical option for me.
After selecting a knife with a traditional wooden handle, I got to the really exciting part - watching the knife maker sharpen the blade and then engrave it with my name. Needless to say I was pretty pleased with the end result!
Now it's time to put it to the test!
Any one else keen on Japanese knives? I'd be interested to hear how they have fared in your kitchens over the years.
It has been a long, long time since I have visited a country that made me want to hop straight back onto a plane the very second I left it.
It may be due to the palpable foreignness of the place, the mind-boggling variety of strange food, customs and landscapes, the impenetrable language… whatever it was, Japan has got me hooked and I can’t wait to head back!
Just a week in the country has left me with so much I’d like to share that I’m sure my Platetrotter posts are going to be pretty one-tracked for the next few weeks.
And high on that list of memorable experiences would have to be my much anticipated introduction to matcha tea.
I have to confess that I have never tasted matcha tea prior to visiting Japan. Having heard mixed reviews about it, I had clung onto the idea that I would save that first taste of matcha for the land of its origin.
Nowhere seemed like a more appropriate place in Japan to try this strange tea than Kyoto, the beautiful old capital of Japan and the cultural heart and soul of the country. And when I came across a great little blog about Japanese tea and all its associated customs and quirks, I knew the lady who wrote it – Atsuko Mori – was the one to introduce me to matcha.
Atsuko runs authentic Japanese tea ceremony sessions at Camellia, a 100-year geisha house in Gion – touted to be among the most beautiful spots to enjoy this essential Japanese experience.
Just the walk to the tea room was enough to set the mood for a relaxing encounter. The path we took wound its way through serene temple grounds – all green gardens and grey, glistening roofs – and as it was the last day of the year, the grounds were filled with people giving thanks for the year that was and praying for success and happiness in the year to come.
The old geisha district of Gion is one of the city’s most atmospheric places to wander around and is probably best to see both early in the morning, as the bright dawn glow hits the traditional wooden matchiya houses, and in the evening when the lanterns come on and make you feel you are walking back in time.
The tea ceremony itself is hosted by Atsuko in a bright little room, with traditional tatami mat flooring. After introducing the idea of chanoyu – or the tea ceremony – Atsuko proceeded to demonstrate the graceful sequence of movements that go into creating a perfect cup of Japanese tea.
This included purification of the vessels, heating of the bowls, scooping out the matcha tea using a tiny bamboo spoon and then whisking the tea into a light and frothy cup using a bamboo whisk. The tea ceremony is taught in special schools and takes years to practice and perfect. Atsuko said she has been practicing it for more than 20 years.
The tea itself is made from young delicate green tea buds, that have often been left in the shade or covered to stimulate extra chlorophyll production (responsible for matcha tea’s distinctive bright green hue). The plucked tea leaves are dried flat, de-veined and de-stemmed before being milled to a super fine talc-like consistency. The tea we drank tasted very “green” – like drinking the scent of a forest or woods with a dry sweetish flavor profile unlike any tea I had drunk before.
As we participated in the tea ceremony on the last day of the year, the cup and the tea caddy used in the ceremony depicted a horse (the Eastern animal associated with the year 2014) as a form of reflection on the year past.
The kakemono (traditional scroll hanging) and complementary ikebana arrangement which is meant to set the mood of the ceremony also paid tribute to the new year in the form of a rising sun on the scroll (January 1st is a huge festival in Japan, with many people staying up all night to watch the first sunrise of the year and then celebrating each time they do something for the “first” time in the following year).
The ikebana arrangement included Japan Pine (a celebratory form of greenery and the most important of the Japanese trio of plants used to symbolize happiness and celebrations – Sho Chiku Bai, which includes Sho (Pine) Chiku (Bamboo) and Bai (Plum).
The tea ceremony is often accompanied by quirky Japanese sweets, all of which have their own associated traditions and stories. For example, Japanese sweets are often only served in odd numbers – especially to couples – so that they are not easy to divide and have to be shared.
As the source that led me to this beautiful little tea room, Atsuko’s blog is a great resource on Japanese tea customs and traditions – everything from sweets to furniture to sacred waters used in the preparation of the tea ceremony – making for some fascinating little nuggets on this must-try Japanese experience. Definitely worth a read!
I ate my first Platetrotter present today and (mainly for my sake) I'm glad it tasted a lot better than it sounded.
It was a wasabi Kit Kat all the way from Japan, courtesy my cousin.
Yup, a wasabi Kit Kat. Apparently Japan has a thing for flavoured Kit Kat. You can get everything from rather tasty sounding Berry Wine and Custard Pudding to the downright strange Camembert Cheese, Lemon Vinegar and Soya Sauce varieties. They even have regional versions that vary from north to south based on locally preferred delicacies. This site has a run down of some of the more unusual flavours.
Anyone who has added too enthusiastic a helping of wasabi to their sushi will know that wasabi is a taste - or more a sensation - that needs a bit of getting used to. The root, known as Japanese horseradish, has a similar burn-your-nasal-passages effect that hot mustard has. Not really a flavour I'd imagine going well with chocolate. Chocolate + chilli, yes, and if done right really delicious. Chocolate and wasabi? I wasn't convinced.
For starters I was expecting dark chocolate. But the wasabi Kit Kat was a very light green achieved by adding wasabi to white chocolate. I think the wasabi + white chocolate combo worked well - sweet to start off with, then the crunch of the wafer, followed by the lingering wasabi flavour. Pungent but surprisingly light, I'm glad the wasabi didn't make it's presence too prominently felt.
All in all, I'd eat it again - which isn't really what I expected to say when I first heard about my edible Japanese present :)
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