There is a saying that a person from Tokyo will spend his last dime on footwear, and a Kyoto-ite will spend his last dime on a kimono. Well, a person from Osaka will spend HIS last dime on food. This has given rise to the term “kuidaore”, which literally means "eat ‘til you drop,” and defines the act of becoming poor as a result of one's extravagance in eating and drinking. Osaka’s obsession with food is famous throughout Japan, giving it somewhat of a reputation as a “gourmet city.”
Osaka is located on a large bay, which was once abundant with anchovies. This drew a vast variety of saltwater fish, while the fertile plains provided excellent fresh vegetables. The town of Sakai, just south of Osaka, was famous for its merchant class (many of whom had fled Kyoto during hard times.) These merchants preferred to take their customers out for dinner, rather than entertaining them at home. This gave rise to a long standing restaurant tradition. During the Edo era, Sakai also emerged as a center for fine cutlery, including knives specially made for slicing and filleting fish.
As far as flavor is concerned, Osaka cuisine tends to have a little more sweetness than Tokyo or Kyoto cuisine. The amount of salt is dialed down, and the sugar and mirin (sweet sake) are dialed up. The cuisine is based on light colored soy sauce, which actually has more salt than dark soy, but has a rounder flavor. It also has the added advantage of preserving the color of the ingredients instead of turning everything brown. Light soy sauce is favored in the Kansai region, which also includes Kyoto.
On a recent visit to a humble izakaya (pub) in Osaka, we sampled air-dried sanma grilled to perfection over glowing coals, big trays of yakitori with a sauce so savory we were tempted to lick the plate, and copious plates of other hearty foods, including Japanese-style fried potatoes, which were a perfect accompaniment for beer. At the end of the meal, a single perfect piece of jumbo-sized chu-toro sushi was place before each of us. It was perhaps the most delicious sushi I have ever had in my life. But when asked to describe what exactly the secret was, I couldn’t point to a single aspect; only that the ingredients were of excellent quality and were prepared and served in an unpretentious and straightforward style, by people who loved to eat.
It’s not to say that you can’t find a bad meal in Osaka. There are certainly plenty of restaurants catering to tourists, or to the drunken party-goers who stumble around the entertainment districts. But the standards are generally high. Any self-respecting local has a favorite tonkastu (pork cutlet), fugu (blowfish) or sushi restaurant they’ve been frequenting for years, or even decades. They will pride themselves on introducing you, as you will almost certainly never find these gems on your own. Many of the best places are located on the second floor of non-descript buildings, in basements, or down a hidden alley.
It was in Osaka that we had our first special tonkatsu sauce. This establishment was not content to rely on the old standard; the store-bought tonkatsu sauce served by most restaurants. While their sauce included something similar to that sweet, sticky and tangy concoction, it also included fiery Japanese mustard and mayonnaise. The combination is simply delicious, a perfect compliment to the crispy and juicy flavors of the pork (or chicken), and we always duplicate it at home to this day.
Famous Osaka dishes include okonomi-yaki (savory pancakes) and oshizushi (pressed sushi).