Hold the fries, please
A kappo-style meal gets to the true heart of Osakan cuisine
OSAMU Ueno has a bee in his bonnet. To understand Osakan cuisine, the Michelin-starred chef insists, as he drops another dainty morsel on to my plate, one must see past the ubiquitous fried food for which Japan’s thirdlargest city is famous.
The takoyaki (octopus dumplings), kushiage (fried meat and vegetable skewers) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) that can be found on virtually every street are not the region’s only culinary achievements, he says. There is a delicacy and subtlety to be found beneath Osaka’s crisply battered exterior, if only one looks in the right places.
Osaka, in the Kansai region of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is commonly regarded as the country’s culinary capital. As the gateway to cities such as Kyoto and Kobe, this former merchant town, with easy access to some of Japan’s best produce, has built a reputation for thrifty chefs with the creative skills to ensure every scrap of food is used. And with so many international traders passing through over the years, Osakan cooks have cannily added international ideas and flavours to their repertoire.
In the city’s centre lies Dotonbori. This loud and brash dining and entertainment precinct, lined with takeaway food stalls, restaurants, shops and pachinko parlours, with giant plastic replicas of sushi and mechanical crabs hanging overhead, is like a Disneyland for the tastebuds.
Ueno’s compact Naniwa Kappo Kigawa restaurant, hidden down a small alley just off Dotonbori’s main drag, sits incongruously amid the glitz and glamour, its understated entrance and spartan interiors belying the culinary extravagance to come.
The well-regarded chef and his small team deliver a series of exquisite plates that puts Osaka’s thrifty ethos into practice. A single ingredient is presented in myriad ways (delicate slices of flathead are followed by the fish’s crisp, fried bones; pike conger eel appears in the form of marinated roe served with a dashi stock jelly in one dish, its flesh presented as sashimi in another, and then grilled and served with a dollop of shrimp paste in a third).
Kigawa, opened by Ueno’s father, food writer and chef Shuzo Ueno, has held a Michelin star for each of the five years Michelin has been sending its scouts to Japan. Ueno is nonplussed. How, he asks, can the guide’s staff based in France award stars for a cuisine they barely understand?
At Kigawa, we are eating kappo style, a less formal version of traditional kaiseki dining. Instead of sitting in a separate dining room and having each course delivered by waitstaff who then retreat, the Osakan way has guests sitting at a counter, sushi style, with dishes prepared in front of them, fostering a rapport between chef and diner.
I find it a far more relaxed way to enjoy these sometimes marathon multi-course meals, and it’s a great
PICTURES: MICHELLE ROWE opportunity to watch the goings-on in Kigawa’s small but orderly kitchen.
Ueno chats to fellow diners (there are 12 of us perched at the L-shaped wooden bar) as if they are old friends while course after course is delivered. Chilled snow pea soup, sashimi in multiple guises (Akashi octopus, cuttlefish, tuna), seared tilefish with plum sauce, sea bass with lemon and salt, horse mackerel with yuzu pepper . . .
As a treat for the only foreigner in the dining room, Ueno presents a surprise dish: soft-shelled turtle soup with a large corn dumpling. I find it confronting but don’t want to embarrass my host. I tuck in with some trepidation and, like the preceding dishes, it is delicious — as are the abalone and shiitake mushrooms with abalone liver sauce and the grilled pike conger eel with baby shrimp paste that follow.
It’s a convivial evening, with my dining companion valiantly translating for Ueno throughout the meal. At first reticent, the chef is a veritable chatterbox by night’s end, eager to ensure this visitor goes home with the right impression of Osakan food.
Myfriend and I scrape clean our final dish — a luscious peach and ginger ice cream with plum sauce — and make our way back into the thumping, neon-lit otherworld of Dotonbori. We stride past the battered octopus balls and the deep-fried skewers, those pretenders to the throne. The true heart of Osakan cuisine has a beat all of its own.
above Chef Osamu Ueno, left, at his Naniwa Kappo Kigawa restaurant below Lotus root salad