Osaka: The appealing ‘kitchen’ of Japan

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Entertainment,Patricia Unterman

Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman checks in with a new report from her culinary adventures around the world, this time on a sister-city delegation. TODAY: Japan

Ninety-six congenial sister city relationships exist between Japan and California, but the San Francisco-Osaka treaty of friendship is the oldest. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the sisterhood, and to commemorate this milestone, San Francisco sent a culinary delegation composed of 35 restaurant and food industry folks, led by yours truly, and an equal number of Japanese-Americans affiliated with the San Francisco Japanese Community and Cultural Center who just like to eat.

When it comes to good feelings and mutual understanding, nothing works better than shared pleasure around the table. A meal creates a common experience that explores and celebrates cultural differences. A full week of nonstop eating really did bring Osakans and San Franciscans together, more intimately and joyfully than we ever imagined.

Osaka, like San Francisco, considers itself a food town. Both are port cities open to culinary crosscurrents from all over the world. Both have a large working population who eat out all the time, and both are strongest in mid-priced restaurants and street food.

Osakans pride themselves on living in the "kitchen of Japan." The city is located on an inland sea rich with seafood and surrounded by farmland. We visited sake and beer breweries, a Kikkoman soy sauce factory with the biggest vat of fermenting soy and wheat mash (koji) in the world, rice cracker factories and confectioners. With 2.4 million residents spread out over a huge geographical area, Osaka is actually more akin to the entire Bay Area than specifically San Francisco.

In a country where many restaurants have no more than a counter with eight or so seats — and diners need a personal recommendation to even get in the door — the challenge of feeding a group of 75 was daunting.

But some Osaka-style restaurants worked brilliantly for such a big crowd, like Mimiu (4618 Hirano-cho, Chuoku, Honmachi tel: 06 6231 5770), a 200-year-old udonsuki house in a narrow alley, where we sat shoeless on tatami mats at antique wooden tables under a low, woven bamboo ceiling.

The servers poured a rich dashi (a broth of kombu, a sea vegetable, and dried bonito flakes, the cornerstone of Japanese cooking) from ceramic flasks into a pot arranged with chopstick-size bits of free-range chicken, eel, shiitakes, seasoned tofu balls, fried tofu, tofu skin, taro, snow peas, carrots, kabocha squash, hearts of curly cabbage and knotted chrysanthemum stems, set over a burner in the middle of the table.

When the broth came to a boil we added thick white wheat flour noodles called udon. We used the handles of our chopsticks to fill our individual bowls with all the different items and ladled the now even richer broth with little mother of pearl ladles, seasoning each bowl from a condiment plate of grated ginger, grated daikon mixed with hot red chile, shredded scallions and Japanese lime.

The quality of all the components — from dashi to toothsome house-made noodles — made the dish compelling. The udonsuki service here costs $40 a person.

Only a few people at a time can eat at the tiny stalls that surround the Kizu Ichiba or market, where a group of us were bused after being denied entry into Osaka's big wholesale fish and vegetable market at 6:30 a.m. one morning.

The default market, not far away, turned out to be better suited to small shoppers like us and certainly more welcoming. I stumbled onto athree-table broiled unagi stall behind fluttering cloth banners, lured in by the long glistening glazed rolls of fresh-water eel filled with burdock root. We ate these, cut into rounds; then, a tender, layered eel omelet cooked in a deep, square pan; and finished with bowls of hot green tea — about $3.

The next day I got up early to return to the Kizu market for breakfast sushi at Kana-é, a tiny sushi place that opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 1:30 p.m. feeding the workers in the market. Four generations have operated Kana-é; that morning mom was sent out to the market stalls to get more fish, while dad made traditional sushi with warm, sticky rice and son created his own compositions that juxtaposed the raw and the cooked.

Market workers slipped in for four perfect pieces of sushi in a muted rainbow of colors— pearl, pink, orange and white, accompanied by a bowl of strong miso soup full of tofu and vegetables. We San Franciscans gorged on piece after piece of impeccable sushi, including sea urchin roe, "leatherfish," aji seared over the flame from the stove, scallop and fresh water shrimp.

We ended with a sublime creation of sweet raw spider crab topped with raw tomalley, next to a sushi roll of cooked crab meat wrapped in toasty nori topped with cooked tomalley, revealing all the facets of this silken-fleshed, long legged crab. The cost for this luxurious meal — $30 a person — barely covered the patience and good will of the owners who had to deal with us.

Sammy's Ebisu Palace in Dotonbori, three stories of street food stalls in a stage set recreation of old Osaka is located in an old theater building in one Osaka’s throbbing fluorescent-lit arcades. It easily accommodated our big group. We split up and wandered, searching for the best looking okonomiyaki, the iconic Osaka street food.

There are savory pancakes cooked on a griddle, thick with pieces of octopus — what our group came to regard as the pork of the sea — and noodles, cabbage, shrimp, egg, sliced pork and pickles, among other possibilities. When the pancakes have set and browned, they're brushed with Worcestershire glaze, squiggled with sweet Japanese mayonnaise and dusted with shaved bonito flakes. At a cost of $10 at Sammy's, they are expensive by street food standards.

I found my favorite version, okonomiyaki negiyaki, which substitutes chopped green onions for cabbage, at the Kitaro stall on the sixth floor of Sammy’s. Just look for the most delicious little photo the Sammy's illustrated map. Eat them without sauce.

Osakans also claim takoyaki, bite-sized octopus balls, as their own. A batter is poured over a cast-iron mold of half spheres. Pieces of octopus are popped into each one and the molds are sprinkled with scallions and red pickled ginger. Magically, the batter cooks, rises and becomes round as it's rotated in its mold.

At the Takoyakushi "self" stall at Sammy's you can make your own on molds with burners built into the tables. Two very sweet women showed us how to do it. We finished off the Sammy's evening with scoops of creamy green tea and sesame ice cream sandwiched between airy wafers.

In all honesty, if I had not been called to represent our city, I never would have discovered the pleasures of Osaka — Tokyo and Kyoto being the glamour spots. But for many of the delegates who were visiting Japan for the first time, Osaka proved to be a welcoming entry point, forgiving and not too confusing, a tantalizing introduction to the cuisine and culture — especially with cooking demonstrations at the famous Tsuji Cooking School and lectures by food expert Elizabeth Andoh.

When I got back to San Francisco, I missed the civility of Osaka, the efficiency of the train system, the impeccable service in hotels and department stores, and the safety of the streets. At home, food suddently tasted too sweet, salty and sour. I realized that Ihad been eating a mid-range palate of flavors with very little oil and fat, and drinking a wine, sake, whose highest attributes are balance, smoothness and a delicate aroma evocative of pure water. In comparison, Western food and drink felt like a sensual assault.

Now I'm dreaming of a return to Osaka without official duties and a place set at the table.

Patricia Unterman is author of the "San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide" and a newsletter, "Unterman on Food." Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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