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Japan is a nation of unabashed foodies, and each major metropolitan area has its own culinary standards. Tokyo is the place for top-tier avant-garde dining. Kyoto cuisine is known for its understated yet complex interplay of flavors. And Osaka? Well, Osaka is the spot for good old-fashioned grub, and where the people aren’t afraid of something a little heavy on the palate or in the stomach. What less would you expect from a town where fans of the local baseball team jump off of bridges into the river after a big win?

Being situated in downtown Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, our offices are too far for us to sneak out to Osaka on our lunch break. They are, however, within striking distance of a branch of prestigious department store Isetan, which just so happens to be in the middle of holding a special Osaka food fair.

Like most department stores in Japan, Isetan’s basement level houses an upscale grocery store which also offers a wide variety of pre-made dishes. The event we came for is called the Osaka Selection – A Taste of Naniwa (Naniwa being another name for the Osaka region). For some reason though, Isetan has done surprisingly little to publicize the food fair, and its booths are crammed into a tiny patch of floor space.

Nevertheless, we assembled a team consisting of our regular food correspondent, an accredited cooking instructor, a former restaurant industry professional, and a man and woman who just happened to be hungry enough to come along. They put their stomachs and heads together to come up with a list of the five best foods on offer at the event, which runs until July 2.

  • Fifth Place: Radio-yaki (from Aizuya)

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The restaurant Aizuya is the originator of the dish most associated with Osaka, takoyaki, which are small balls of dough cooked with a morsel of octopus inside. Before creating takoyaki, however, Aizuya had another hit with radio-yaki.

Radio-yaki are also small balls of dough, and while originally they had no fillings, the ones being sold at the event are available with a variety of stuffings such as pork or scallops, resulting in an array of distinct flavors.

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  • Fourth Place: Naniwa Inari (from Edosan Yamatoya)

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Inari, small lumps of rice wrapped in thin envelope of sweet fried tofu, is next on our list. The tofu in Edosan Yamatoya’s inari is sweet enough without being overly so, giving them a surprisingly delicate flavor. The inari are available with a variety of fillings such as chicken and tuna, and since each one is fairly small (about a third of the size of a regular rice ball), we were able to sample all of them.

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  • Third Place: Takoyaki (from Aizuya)

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You can’t make a list of great Osaka food without the aforementioned takoyaki, and what better representative is there than the original from Aizuya? Takoyaki nowadays are usually topped with sweet sauce, green onions, and mayonnaise for extra flavor, but Aizuya’s are served without any such embellishments. Some people might feel this makes them a little lacking as a meal, but we can’t help thinking they’d make the perfect accompaniment to a glass of beer or cup of sake.

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  • Second Place: Abe Potatoes (from Shimaya)

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As we popped one of these honey-drizzled potato wedges into our mouths, our initial take was that it was pretty bland. But over the next few seconds, a delicious sweetness slowly but undeniably crept up on us. We took just a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship in such flavoring, because that was as long as we could force ourselves to stop eating them for. For aesthetic purposes, Shimaya’s standard recipe uses a restrained amount of honey, but you can ask the salesperson to pour on even more if you so desire.

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  • First Place: Grilled Squid with Egg (from Momotani Ikayaki-ya)

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At first glance we thought this was okonomiyaki–a sort of pancake made with cabbage and egg that Osaka is well known for. A closer look revealed it to be flat-grilled squid covered in egg.

When this dish is poorly made, the flavor of the squid gets drowned out by the egg and sauce. That certainly wasn’t the case here though, as each and every bite gave us a great seafood flavor, plus an enjoyable interplay between the fluffy texture of the egg and the squid’s elasticity. The dish is so simple it almost feels like a guilty pleasure, but this is definitely good stuff.

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So the members of our panel walked away full, but were they completely satisfied? “I’m sad to say it, but nothing really floored me,” concluded our reporter, citing a lack of tasty representatives of other famed Osaka foods such as okonomiyaki and deep-fried skewers. “But at the same time, there’s no denying that this event gives you a glimpse into what Osaka has to offer.”

In short, we’re not sure we’d take a three-hour ride on the bullet train to Osaka for these, but a five-minute walk from Shinjuku Station? We’ll meet you there.

Event Information
Osaka Special The Taste of Naniwa
Site: Isetan Shinjuku Branch
Address Tokyo, Shinjuku Ward, Shinjuku 3-14-1, basement level 1
東京都新宿区新宿3-14-1 B1
Until July 2

Photos: RocketNews24
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