This is one of my last few posts on my visit to Kyoto and Osaka and the topic is focused on food. I love Japanese culture – the food, the history, the temples, the respect people have for each other. Months after my visit, I still dream of the country. And one thing I am especially still dreaming about is the food.
While walking around Kyoto and Osaka, and taking in the amazing sceneries, I've also tried various types of specialty food in Kyoto.
I saw that throughout Japan people love to eat.
Japan is known as one of the ultimate food destinations – a city with passionate food lovers and an abundance of things to eat. And that’s precisely the reason why I was so excited to visit Japan – for the food.
Japan is also famous for its old style box sushi, known as hako-zushi, and available at markets, the basements of departments stores.
Yakitori describes small pieces of chicken, served skewered and grilled on a bamboo stick. While chicken thighs and wings are often used, the skewers can also be made with the chicken liver, skin, small intestine, or cartilage. The meat is typically seasoned with salt or a savory sauce. Some skewers incorporate other ingredients besides chicken, such as tsukune which consists of balls made with minced chicken, egg, vegetables and spices; or negima in which the chicken pieces alternate with pieces of leek.
Taiyaki are fish shaped cakes filled with custard, chocolate or cheese.
Yakisoba, pan-fried noodles tossed with vegetables, thinly sliced pork, and a sweet and savory sauce, is one of my favorite things to buy from the food vendors at a Japanese festival.
Yakisoba is made with ramen-like noodles, which are stir-fried with small pieces of pork and various veggies like cabbage, carrots, and onions. Based on Chinese chow mein, this comfort-food dish is seasoned with a special sauce which gives the noodles their distinct tangy and spicy flavor. Perfect as a light meal or snack, the noodles are typically topped with seaweed flakes, fish flakes, and red pickled ginger. You’ll also sometimes see the noodles served hot-dog-style in a bun, topped with mayonnaise and pickled ginger.
There are always yakisoba vendors at matsuri, frying up large batches of noodles on large flat metal griddles.
Takoyaki is almost a synonym of Osaka.
These little golf ball sized batter balls stuffed with a piece of octopus are perhaps the most famous thing to eat in the city, and they are a big hit and food craze around the world as well.
When you get to Osaka and start wandering around and eating, you’ll be quick to find that at just about every major market there are a few takoyaki vendors… and they are typically some of the busiest restaurants in the entire market.
One of the best things about takoyaki is watching them being made.
It begins with a hot griddle that includes golf ball shaped holes in it. A bunch of pancake like batter is first poured flat into the hot mold, before a pre-cooked piece of octopus is tossed in the middle.
As the batter becomes partially cooked, and when the chef determines the correct time, the chef takes a duo of chopsticks and works quickly to form the batter into balls, keeping the octopus in the center.
Takoyaki vendors are particularly prevalent on the streets of Osaka and Kyoto, where the dish originated, but can be found in pretty much any Japanese city.
The takoyaki sizzles in the mould until it’s golden brown, and it’s then ready to be dished out.
When you order takoyaki in Osaka, they will typically dish them into a boat shaped tray, and then you can order a selection of different toppings – some of the typical toppings include Japanese mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which kind of tastes like sour teriyaki sauce), seaweed flakes, cheese, and the mandatory sprinkle of bonito fish flake shavings.
For myself, takoyaki is one of those foods that has to be hot and fresh for me to enjoy, so it’s crispy on all the edges, and soft and gooey in the middle. If it sits for too long and loses its crispy edges, it’s not nearly as good.
One of the best types of restaurant to eat at in Japan if you’re looking for budget eats is a diner style restaurant, which you’ll frequently come across throughout Osaka.
Diner restaurants are where people of all walks of life stop in for a quick, easy, relatively cheap most of the time, filling, and pretty good tasting meal. They are sometimes family run, other times they are chain style cafeteria restaurants.
At some Shokudo you’ll pay and order from a vending machine, and at others you can walk through a line, and pick and choose whichever dishes look good to you. Along with the occasional oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowl), one of my favorite meals to eat at a cafeteria diner restaurant in Japan is the broiled mackerel set, which typically comes on a tray, served with a few small side salads and pickles, and a bowl of rice.
The food is good, and it’s one of the top ways to eat on a budget when in Osaka. Everything was pretty good and I enjoyed the laid back diner style.
Udon is a thick and chewy Japanese noodle made with wheat flour, and served in a variety of different ways.
To me, as opposed to ramen – beyond the thickness difference – udon is sort of the more elegant noodle option.
It seems that it’s often a bit plainer in flavor (the broth or sauce is typically not as heavy or salty as ramen), and it’s more of a delicate flavored noodle and even the style of eating it seems more delicate.
That doesn’t mean it’s not one of the must eat foods in Osaka, because it’s extremely popular, and really good – it’s probably one of my favorite Japanese noodle option.
Udon noodles are served in many different styles, including with curry, in hot soup, in cold soup, and even dry with a dipping sauce (highly recommended by the way).
In Singapore, I'd go to the nearest supermarket sometimes, buy a packaged box of Japanese curry base, then cook it up with a bunch of beef and carrots and make a giant pot of fresh steamed rice to go with it.
For myself, just like for many Japanese, Japanese curry is one of the ultimate comfort foods. Japanese curry is quite a fusion food, a curry flavor that originally comes from India, butrouted through the curry culture of Britain.
The curry has a familiar curry powder blend flavor, but the sauce is dark and thick, more like a brown gravy than a typical saucy curry. There are a number of ways Japanese curry is served, with udon noodles is common, but probably the most popular is right over a bed of Japanese steamed short grain rice.
While Japanese curry can’t compare to the depth of spice in Indian or Thai curries, there’s something about Japanese curry that just makes one warm and fuzzy inside – perhaps it’s the mild blend of curry powder, the thick rich gravy sauce, the option of a fried pork katsu cutlet, and the fresh steamed Japanese rice.
Japanese curry is one of those meals, kind of like ramen, that’s famous for being a 24 hours a day food.
One of my favorite things in Kyoto is green tea ice cream. I know I’ll never be able to give up this sweetest bit of dessert. And, really, if you’re going to eat green tea ice cream anywhere in the world, it ought to be Kyoto. This mildly sweet delicacy has become so synonymous with modern Kyoto dessert that you can get it nearly everywhere.
You can never be too full, nor the weather too cold, for a bowl of that delicious, frozen goodness, and if you happen to be heading to Kyoto to catch the beautiful autumn leaves, you’ll be pleased to know that Japan’s most traditional city is positively brimming with ice cream at that time of year. Whether you’re into fruity flavors or traditional Kyoto desserts, or simply wanting to satisfy your sweet tooth, the ancient capital is bound to have something for you.
In Kyoto, Osaka (and throughout Japan), people take their ramen very seriously.
It’s a dish, that at the right restaurant, many are willing to stand in a long line to patiently wait their turn to have a bowl of piping hot noodles in broth.
Ramen is one of those dishes in Japan that has a cult following – everyone has their favorite spot, and when you want to eat a bowl of ramen, nothing can deter your craving.
The noodles used in ramen are typically wheat noodles, similar to Chinese lamian. They are cooked to varying degrees of chewiness, sometimes served more al-dente, while other times they are served softer.
But the real flavor and pleasure of eating a bowl of ramen (at least for me) is in the broth, and there are a number of different popular styles, which can be identified by the richness and flavor of the broth.
This is a great explanation of the different types of ramen you’ll find in Japan, but a few of my favorites are shio, a salt based broth, shoyu, a soy sauce based broth, and finally, the heavy creamy tonkotsu ramen, made with pork bones that are boiled until the marrow is unleashed.
Finally, the toppings, and most notably, the thick slices of pork chashu, and the spoonful of raw minced garlic, elevates a bowl of ramen to perfection.
For myself, it depends on what mood I’m in that determines what styles of ramen I feel like eating. But a good bowl of rich buttery tonkotsu is tough to beat.
At Pablo, Osaka’s famous pastry and cheesecake shop, you will be amazed by the artistic mastery and innovation brought to each and every pastry they bake.
A recent trend in Japan, cheesecake has developed beyond the “New York” style cheesecake that many Americans have come to know and love. Japanese cheesecake, known as “rare cheesecake,” is a much loved item at Pablo. Rare cheesecake maintains the deliciously tart, yet sweet taste of a regular cheesecake. Its consistency is a little bit liquefied and smooth while maintaining a deliciously golden brown top layer.
At Pablo you can buy an individual tart or a whole cake to share with friends (or savor by yourself). Each and every cheesecake, is baked in house so you are guaranteed your treat will be as fresh as can be. Just note that at peak hours there will be lines of hungry Pablo fans waiting to get their special treat!
While I love just about everything Japanese, these foods are my highlights and the ones I urge you to try them when you go to Japan. After all, while you can get these foods anywhere in the world, they don’t taste nearly as good and as fresh as when you eat them in Japan!