A spicy octopus mix cooked in batter provides a succulent street snack in the city often called Japan's food capital.
The chef's hand moves rapidly over a well-worn grill, using a chopstick to flick over the doughy contents of each golf-ball-sized takoyaki. As the mixture turns, a crispy casing forms on the outside of the balls, while the batter inside — thick with octopus chunks, pickled ginger and cabbage — remains rich and creamy. Reaching for a thin Cardboard tray, the chef piles it high with the freshly cooked takoyaki, adds a generous sprinkling of shaved fish flakes (katsuobushi), fine dried seaweed and savory barbeque-style sauce, and passes it to a waiting patron. Surprisingly perhaps, Osaka's favorite street-side snack was born out of hardship in Japan — caused by food shortages in the aftermath, first, of a devastating earthquake in 1923 and, later, World War II. At these times, batter-based dishes, such as takoyaki, were popular because they were cheap, and by the time the country had recovered, the people of Osaka had developed a lasting fondness for them. These days, you will find stalls, shops and restaurants serving takoyaki throughout the city, but if you want to enjoy the tasty octopus parcels while taking in the pulsing beat of Japan's second-largest conurbation, visit Dotonbori Street alongside the Dotomborigawa River. Here, flashing neon lights tower above you, while at ground level among a warren of bars and eateries takoyaki vendors ply their trade.
When to go: Year-round. If you go in early April, you will catch some of the cherry blossom festivals that take place around Osaka.
Planning: Dotonbori Street is near Namba Station. To experience more of the local atmosphere, visit in the late afternoon or evening, and be prepared for crowds. Japan's street food is generally safe to eat, but go for the busy places with longer lines of Japanese people as these will be selling the best octopus. Also, especially if visiting in summer, check that the octopus is being kept cool and out of the sun.
Websites: www.osaka-info.jp, www.japan-guide.com
Make your own
Takamasa in Dotonbori Street offers a 'hands-on takoyaki experience', in which you cook your own takoyaki. Takamasa is one of Osaka's best-known takoyaki restaurants, with other branches across the city. Sample the negi-takoyaki, with leeks (negi) added to the batter mix.
Tamagoyaki (or akashiyaki) is a soggier alternative to takoyaki, in which the octopus balls are dipped in fish broth (dashi) before being served.
The cult of the takoyaki has earned the dish its own miniature theme park, the Osaka Takoayki Museum. You learn about the history of the takoyaki and sample offerings prepared by some of the city's most popular takoyaki shops.