Japan’s kitchen: 6 dishes you must try in Osaka

Known as ‘The Nation’s Kitchen’, Japan’s third-largest city has a flavour all its own and smells that drive your taste buds wild.

Japanese snack ball-shaped dumpling made of batter
  • Megan Osborne
  • October 2018

As soon as you arrive in Osaka, you know it’s a city defined by food. The loud, hectic main promenade of Dōtonbori – lined with crazy, flashing neon signs – and the smoky wafts from its street food vendors are a sensory assault best experienced at night. Across the river, the streets of Shinsaibashi boast dozens of cosy izakayas and intimate dining experiences. Unlike Tokyo, where many restaurants are hidden in the upper levels of skyscrapers, with the ground floors given over to glossy retail stores, the streets of Osaka simply speak food.

Come meal times, you’ll be tempted by rich smells and lured by the sight of full tables and bustling bar countertops. Regardless of where you are or what you're craving, finding a place to eat in this city will never be a problem. Here’s our guide to the defining dishes of Osaka.

Takoyaki at the night market, a ball made of a wheat flour-based batter
Takoyaki, grilled balls of pancake batter filled with minced octopus, are sold on almost every street corner of Osaka.

Defining dish #1: Takoyaki

One of Osaka’s most iconic snacks, you’ll find takoyaki — grilled balls of pancake batter filled with minced octopus — on almost every street corner. From stalls to street-facing restaurant windows, you can often watch the moulds being filled in front of you, and observe as deft, chopstick-wielding chefs flip the round morsels until they’re golden brown. Toppings include mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (a dark, tangy Worcestershire-like sauce), cheese, seaweed and bonito (dried tuna) flakes. Look for the giant mechanical octopus that points the way to Dōtonbori’s heavenly takoyaki restaurants.

Perfect grilled meet  and vegetables
Yakiniku is always a spectacle as it is cooked on a charcoal grill at your table.

Defining dish #2: Yakiniku

The yakiniku style of restaurant, common in Osaka, is the perfect option for meat lovers. Cuts of beef are sliced into bite-sized portions and cooked on a charcoal grill in front of you. And given Osaka’s proximity to Kōbe and the Matsusaka region (home to two of Japan’s three Sandai Wagyu, or ‘big beefs’), premium marbled beef always lines yakiniku menus. Vegetables can also be ordered, and dipping sauces are generally provided with a meal. Visit Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M in Dōtonbori for fantastic service and that drool-worthy Matsusaka beef.

Tempura, egg and mushroom on top of warn udon noodles
It’s okay, encouraged even, to slurp when eating your udon to help regulate the temperature.

Defining dish #3: Udon

The process of creating these thick, flour-based noodles varies depending on region, producing differences in texture, size, shape, taste and mode of consumption. Udon can be served cold or hot, with dipping sauce or broth, as well as a combination of meat and vegetables. Sanuki udon, originating from the Kagawa prefecture, are the most common with their firm, silky texture. Kitsune udon, featuring strips of fried tofu, is a popular dish in Osaka.

It’s okay, encouraged even, to slurp when eating your udon to help regulate the temperature. Feel free to pick up the bowl and drink the leftover broth, too. Seek smaller restaurants for tasty, handmade udon. Restaurants, cooking schools and even Airbnb hosts offer udon-making classes in Osaka.

Creamy Ramen top with dice spring onion and sliced meat
There are four popular styles of ramen and different noodle types and topping.

Defining dish #4: Ramen

Ramen has a cult-like following; just witness the lines of locals queuing on the street. There are four popular styles of ramen, differentiated by the preparation of the broth. Shoyu ramen uses soy sauce, shio uses salt, miso uses fermented soybean paste and tonkotsu uses pork bones.

Noodle types also vary, as do the toppings. Popular inclusions are pork, egg, negi (small leek), bean sprouts, seaweed, fishcakes and more. Ramen noodles get soggy the longer they’re in the broth, so it’s wise to chow down quickly. As with udon, it’s acceptable to drink broth directly from the bowl. In fact, it’s seen as that a compliment to the chef if you manage to slurp it all up.

Many ramen restaurants direct you to order via a vending machine before taking a seat. The creamy, buttery and salty chicken shoyu broth at Ramen Yashichi is highly recommended, and worth a stop if you’re visiting nearby shopping destination Umeda. Just be prepared to queue.

Japanese savory pancake stuffed with shredded cabbage
Okonomiyaki is an evolved version of a traditional pancake originated in the Edo Period.

Defining dish #5: Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is an evolved version of a traditional pancake originated in the Edo Period. The version you can enjoy today rose to popularity in the late 1930s in Osaka. While you should be able to find okonomiyaki across Japan (and even in cities globally), you can find it in the style of the Kansai region everywhere in Osaka.

Okonomiyaki translates to “grilled as you like it”, and is a doughy, savoury pancake made with flour, cabbage and egg. Most places will offer other ingredients of your choice, commonly pork, octopus, mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

Many places cook the pancake on a hotplate directly in front of you, before slicing it up, pizza-style. Okonomiyaki is a quick, cheap and cheerful option. Try Okonomiyaki Kiji for fuel in between discovering the shopping malls in Umeda.

Platter of sliced meat and vegetables
Shabu-shabu is essentially a hotpot where you cook your meal as you go.

Defining dish #6: Shabu-shabu

While shabu-shabu is not exclusive to Osaka, there are some amazing locations in the city to discover it. Shabu-shabu is essentially a hotpot where you cook your meal as you go. You’ll be provided with ingredients such as garlic, onion and ginger to flavour your dashi (broth), then offered a selection of items off a tray of raw vegetables and sliced pork or beef.

Sesame dipping sauces are popular, and it’s not uncommon to find Kōbe beef on the menu, however it will be more expensive. Some of the vegetables, such as mushrooms, can go into the bubbling pot and cook for a while, but the meat is best dipped quickly until just cooked. Scoop cooked items and some broth into your dipping bowl and allow it to cool slightly before consuming. Shabutei Shinsaibashi offers a range of choices depending on your budget, starting at around $25, all the way to blowout Kōbe at $100. Either way, the sesame dipping sauce is divine.