Konamono: Osaka's Tasty "Flour Cuisine"
Osaka is sometimes called "Japan's kitchen" thanks to its longtime role as a major distribution center for foodstuffs from all over the country. High quality, reasonably priced ingredients are therefore a given in Osaka cuisine, from restaurants to home-cooked meals.
Maybe this is one reason why many refer to Osaka as kuidaore-no-machi—literally, a city where people eat themselves bankrupt, an expression used to describe Osaka's renowned passion for food. There is no doubt that Osaka appreciates good food, and the city's restaurants follow the local dictum that their food must taste above-average, come in larger servings than normal, be inexpensive and fast.
Among the region's delicious sushi, noodles and other traditional foods, two dishes definitely fit these criteria: okonomiyaki (savory griddle cake) and takoyaki (octopus dumplings cooked in an iron mold). These are classic examples of Osaka's konamono, or "flour cuisine," a term that refers to a variety of dishes made using flour. Both okonomiyaki and takoyaki are very popular and have spread from Osaka to win fans throughout Japan.
Okonomi means "as you like it" and okonomiyaki is versatile enough to serve as a snack or hearty meal. Osaka-style okonomiyaki batter consists of wheat flour, water or dashi stock and egg grilled on a hot plate with diced cabbage, meat, seafood, eggs and other ingredients that are added "as you like it." In Osaka, the batter and ingredients are mixed in a bowl before grilling (as opposed to other regional styles of preparing okonomiyaki, where batter and ingredients might be grilled separately). The result resembles a thick pancake that is then spread with a special sauce and sprinkled with katsuo-bushi (shaved bonito flakes) and aonori (powdered dried seaweed or green laver). Some prefer to add mayonnaise, according to personal taste.
Because okonomiyaki is easy to make at home, okonomiyaki restaurants work hard to establish a unique taste, usually allowing diners to grill up their own creations using special sauces, batters and ingredients. Most okonomiyaki restaurants are casual, convivial spots where family and friends enjoy a bit of inexpensive, home-style cooking around a steaming hearth. One whole pancake of okonomiyaki costs about ¥700-1,000 (US$6.00-9.00).
Osaka is also rightly proud of its plump, delicious takoyaki balls. These are made of wheat flour and dashi stock batter grilled in small circular molds. Added to the batter are small bits of octopus, chopped long onion, red-pickled ginger, tenkasu (bits of deep-fried tempura batter) and other ingredients. Servings of six to ten takoyaki dumplings are typically served hot with a special rich sauce, katsuo-bushi and aonori. As with okonomiyaki, takoyaki is considered an acceptable—and affordable—snack any time of day: a serving as described above costs only about ¥250-400 (US$2.20-3.50). Takoyaki is most often served at small specialty shops; some of these have a few seats, most others offer only carry-out service. One shop, in business for over 70 years, is known as the originator of takoyaki.
Freshly made okonomiyaki and takoyaki have long been traditional fare at Japan's many outdoor festivals and markets, perhaps the truest indicator of their favored status in the rankings of Japanese cuisine. Indeed, thanks to Osaka's insistence on fresh, savory flavors, both okonomiyaki and takoyaki are national favorites; these days, consumers can even buy them pre-prepared in supermarkets and convenience stores. New okonomiyaki restaurants continue to open around the country while takoyaki take-out holds its own against Western fast foods—proof that Osaka's konamono cuisine is not only delicious, but that one needn't go bankrupt to enjoy it.