Bon Appetit! Japanese Culture in the Kitchen
There is an old saying, Osaka no kui-daore— literally, Osaka people want good food even if they have to go broke for it. But we can take it to mean simply that Osaka people expect their food to be very tasty.
Osaka drove the Japanese economy for centuries. Osaka merchants are said to be constantly in a hurry and concerned about their bottom line, and this is why, people say, they want good food served cheap and fast. This traditional fondness for “fast food” is seen in a local preference for quickly prepared dishes like tako-yaki (fried octopus dumplings), o-konomi-yaki (ingredients mixed in batter and fried pancake-style), and udon (wheat flour noodles). And we cannot forget another popular Osaka treat, kushi-age.
To make kushi-age, take small pieces of meat and vegetables, place them on a thin wooden skewer, coat them in a wheat flour batter, sprinkle on breadcrumbs, then drop them in a deep fryer. A ready-to-eat skewer is quite cheap (about 100 yen) in just about any shop or restaurant. Kushi-age are considered a down-to-earth, working-class snack, best eaten just out of the fryer at a counter, perhaps with a beer in hand.
You are likely to see outlets selling them in busy parts of Osaka, especially in the Shin Sekai (“New World”) district of Naniwa Ward. The district’s most impressive feature is the Tsutenkaku Tower, Osaka’s answer to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Near the tower is a jumble of eating and drinking establishments, mixed in with small stores.
The district may not be large, but it has an impressive number of shops serving kushi-age, each one trying to outdo the next. One of them, Daruma, claims to have started the craze—it dates from 1929. It was the first shop to serve kushi-katsu, skewered pieces of beef. Daruma has a counter but no tables, and it is so small that it can only serve seven or eight customers at a time. The unwritten rule here is to eat, pay and run, so you almost never have to wait long, in spite of the popularity of the place. Today the ingredients are quite varied—not just beef, but pork and chicken too, plus seafood such as squid and octopus, and vegetables including onion, lotus root, asparagus and mini tomatoes. Altogether, there are more than 30 choices in the display case to tempt you.
Daruma’s kushi-age are cheap and simple to make, and they are fried to perfection, too. The batter has different seasonings, the breadcrumbs are made so fine they look like sand, and the recipes are a trade secret. Some kushi-age are deep-fried with lots of batter, others have just a thin coating, others have none at all—it depends on the ingredients you choose. This too shows Daruma’s attention to the culinary experience.
When your piping hot order arrives, dunk each piece into the special sauce in the metal container. The fragrant crispy batter melts in the mouth, the tasty food releases its flavors, and the seasoned sauce adds to the magic. Before you know it, you will be ordering more.
Kushi-age developed in the most energetic, least pretentious part of Osaka. More recently, it has spread to Tokyo and seems poised to conquer the country.