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JULY 2005
Issue 062


Traveling treats

“It's said that the people of Osaka are happy and openhearted because they eat good food.”
— Official Guide, City of Osaka Recreation & Tourism Bureau

He works quickly — nimble fingers, furrowed brow, eyes gliding carefully over the hot iron plate. The wooden pick turns, shapes, molds glutinous lumps of dough, sea life and vegetable into something … more.

“The trick,” the man says, “is to turn the takoyaki quickly. To get the air inside. This way, they become chewy.”

Hideki Tsujino has been making culinary delights at Namba's Takoyaki Ya food stand for little over eight months now, though he's been in practice for quite a bit longer than that. “It takes time to learn,” Tsujino says, now clearing the pan's edges of excess dough and coaxing the small brown balls into existence. “Lots of practice. I practiced making takoyaki for two years before I really got started.”

And if it seems excessive to practice on any food for years until feeling adept at it, consider the stunning amount of food shows on TV right now, where pop stars and actors greet the oddest of culinary concoctions with howls of delight. (However, there've been few sights as sublime this year as a visibly-uncomfortable Richard Gere grimacing his way through a multi-course dinner on variety show SMAPXSMAP).

Consider still the amusing (if somewhat oddly disturbing) Osakan concept of kuidaore — eating until you drop; or the astonishing number of restaurants in Osaka — once pegged at one restaurant for every 81 citizens. Eating — the concept, the action itself — is taken seriously here, and the sharp-minded restau-rateur, if he or she wants to get ahead, must be very, very talented. Or, at least, able to keep the overhead low.

Enter, then, the yatai — those ever-present, lantern-bedecked, open-air food stands that give the peripatetic Kansai populace something to snack on during the course of the workday, and sustenance to festival-goers at various summer events (fireworks displays, obon odori neighborhood parties, etc.).

The origins of yatai in Japan are misty at best, though most denote the Edo era as the earliest starting point. (Open-air food stalls are continually pictured in ukiyoe artist Hiroshige Ando's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido series, first displayed in 1833.) The small, easy-to-put-up-and-easy-to-break-down carts were a cheap financial lifeboat for many following the Second World War, and are today rickety bundles of nostalgia and culture that neither time nor progress nor bad weather can seem to get rid of completely.

“The customers in my old restaurant were the ones that gave me the idea [to open a yatai],” says Shin-Osaka food stall owner Hemen Dave.

“They'd come to my restaurant in Midori for dinner, but they'd always say things like 'I wish I could come here for lunch-time! There are no good restaurants like this in Shin-Osaka!' That's where the idea came from. And no one back then was selling Indian obento, so it seemed like a pretty good idea.”

Dave, who has been running his self-titled yatai on wheels for two and a half years, lame-nts the loss of the Indian restaurant he owned for a decade — “Don't open a restaurant. It's very expensive; very hard” — but explains that times are much, much better now.

“I have a lot of faithful customers and very long queues every day,” Dave says. “I can sell 70 or 80 bentos on good days, and make more selling food outside for two hours than I ever could inside a restaurant. It's nice for me.”

 

Dave's lunch sets — ¥500 to ¥600 boxes including such fare as curry, shish kebab, soup and a “very nice” naan bread — indicate the ever-changing nature of the yatai itself. While once strictly 'Japanese' fare was offered at the stalls, the cuisine has adjusted, evolved and expanded to include such continental food- stuffs as crepes, French fries, grilled hot dogs and no small amount of delicacies from other Asian countries. Including, of course, Korea.

“Lots of people come here to get 'fake' stuff from Korea,” says Obasan no Kimchi chef Mitsunori Kado. “The 'original Korean food' in Tsuruhashi is usually less-authentic stuff made specifically for Japanese people. “But our shop,” Kado says proudly, “our shop sells the real thing.”

Kado's been a part of Obasan no Kimchi for “about two years”, shuttling off packs of kimchi and plates of chijimi to customers from nearby Tsuruhashi station with a perpetual grin that makes him look considerably younger than his 38 years.

“When customers come back and say how much they enjoy my food, how delicious it is — I enjoy that best. The weekends, there are always queues; it's packed here,” Kado says. “The weekdays”— now looking down the sparsely-filled alleyway — “the weekdays, not as much. And one of the biggest problems with spicy food is that's it difficult to maintain freshness, especially in summer months. You keep spicy food out a long time, it turns sour quickly.”

Health concerns being what they are, some people, of course, are touchy about eating food prepared, cooked and left out in the open. Suffice to say that although Japanese food laws are slightly different from the ones back home, several important ones — no serving of raw food outside, no serving of hot food that's been left out for more than one hour — are in effect. (Suffice to say as well that the incentive not to scare away customers by giving them tainted food is fairly big; word of mouth spreads quickly, after all.)

Staying on the right side of health laws, however, is not the only concern of yatai owners.

“The yakuza can be a problem some-times,” Dave says. “I wasn't the only bento seller in the area when I started. In the beginning, the other yatai owners would come to me and say 'You're a newcomer, you're a newcomer; you can't sell here.' I'd say to them, 'I have my license from the city; I can sell anywhere I want to.' Then they'd call the yakuza on me. And then the yakuza would come and demand 'rent money' from me.”

Far from the wild-eyed, violence-crazed thugs of pulp cinema like Black Rain or Battles Without Honor & Humanity, however, Dave describes the yakuza as “just talk, all talk.”

“They really don't scare me. I mean, I've been here for two years now; I'd say they're probably not all that dangerous. I call the police and they always leave right away,” Dave says. “A really big policeman once came and stood next to my shop for me to keep the yakuza away. It's really not a big deal for me.

“Of course, sometimes the police will come to hassle me, too,” Dave laughs. “Luckily, it's no problem for me to pack up
for awhile and relocate somewhere else for 15 minutes — and then just come back when the police leave.”

While licenses to sell food in the street are easy enough to obtain, Dave says, “complaints” can still be filed against yatai owners by anyone and for anything.

“Sometimes, the police will come and chase me away for a little while — tell me I can't sell at a particular location,” Dave says.

“Most of the time, though — honestly, a lot of them are actually my friends — most of the time, they'll come to me and say 'Oh, Hemen, we got some complaint about you. It's just
a formality, but we have to come.' So they'll stick around for awhile and ask me a few questions, and then leave.

“I actually think the Daily Yamazaki store close to me calls in some of the 'complaints',” Dave laughs.

Perhaps no threat is as dire to stall owners as that from the konbini; after all, what's to compel customers to keep coming to the neighborhood yatai when bento boxes, yakitori kebabs or oden sets are increasingly available at convenience stores like Lawson or Mini Stop for a comparable price? Though the immediacy and authenticity of street-bought food are, of course, big selling points, some yatai owners point out that it's their ability to innovate that truly separate them from the corporate machines.
If they're worried, they don't show it.

“There's a lot of competition out here — a lot,” Tsujino says. “To be honest, our tako-yaki isn't that different from the people's up the street, but we have special cours- es, and we try new things, and that brings people in. For instance, we've got something called a takodog; it's takoyaki wrapped up in naan, kind of like a hot dog. I just thought of it one day. It tast-ed nice, so I started selling it to people. It's by far the most popular item here.

“Luckily,” Tsujino adds, “No one's stolen [the idea] yet.”

“No one else has the food I have,” Dave also says. “But, I really wish the government would set down some rules and regulations about how and when people can sell — so the police couldn't just come and make us move, you know? It'd be so much easier for many yatai owners if we could rent space inside places like office buildings, or in the ¥100 parking lots. There are no real laws or regulations right now for that kind of thing.

“And that makes things a little bit tough sometimes,” Dave adds. “Sometimes it's the police, some-times the mafia, sometimes rain. Still, I love what I do, and people love my yatai. What I sell makes them very happy.”

Obasan no Kimchi (06-6972-2188)
is a five-minute walk from JR Tsuruhashi station.
Takoyaki Ya (06-6644-0086)
is a three-minute walk from Namba Station, across
the corner from Wendy's and The Hub.
Hemen Dave (06-6301-2545)
can be found on the west side of Nissay Building — a two-minute walk from Shin-Osaka Midosuji station (exit #4)

Text: Jeff Lo • Photos: Jatin Banker, Taka Kataoka

:: Online Articles

:: FEATURE

Travelling treats
Outdoor food

:: TRAVEL

In a desert land
Namibia, Africa

:: STYLE

Sit! Roll over! Fetch my dry-cleaning!
Robot pets

:: THEATER

Passion and pain
Butoh — the alternative theater of Japan

:: PROFILE

Cut out for kendo
Alex Bennet, Kiwi kendo master

:: Listings

:: CINEMA LISTINGS

Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!

:: ART

Best exhibitions + listings

:: EVENTS

Best events + listings

:: LIVE

Best gigs + listings

:: CLUB

Parties not to miss + listings

:: Also in this month's mag

:: FOOD

Puru Nima
Indian restaurant, Shinsaibashi

:: DRINK

Purely Pure
Club Pure, Shinsaibashi

:: GETAWAY

Music Festivals
Japan's hottest outdoor music festivals

:: READ

New releases and top ten paperback books

:: FILM

Reel reviews of the silver screen

:: SPORTS

Nabbing the Nabisco Cup
J-leage: The Yamazaki Nabisco Cup

:: NEWS

Domestic and international news


THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

New to Japan, or simply still not sure how to differentiate between oyakodonbori and tamagoyaki and takoyaki and yakitori? Here now are the seven yatai foods you must try this summer:

Yakitori
Chicken skewers, lightly grilled and dipped in barbecue sauce. Best eaten with a cool evening breeze and a draught of cheap beer.

Oden
Boiled eggs (or white radish, or fish cakes, or fried tofu, or … ) cooked in a soy sauce-based soup stock. Nearly every convenience store has an oden pot simmering in front of the cash registers.

Unagi
Eel grilled over charcoal and doused with sweet sauce, usually served over a bed of rice. A highly-popular July/August food item; unagi is said to provide a burst of stamina and energy during even the hottest of hot summer days. (And, as housewife tradition goes, sexual potency. Results may vary.)

Okonomiyaki
Flour and cabbage-based “Japanese pizza,” often touted as being the one food every foreigner likes. Traditionally served in Kansai with mayonnaise and barbecue-flavored okonomiyaki sauce, though “Hiroshima-style” okonomiyaki (the same basic recipe, with separated ingredients and yakisoba noodles ladled on) can also be found.

Takoyaki
The original, Kansai-born, doughy octopus snack - browned to golf ball-sized perfection and served with sauce, spices and a toothpick. Takoyaki “mascots” are as easy to find in Osaka as the food itself; the sickeningly cute, foot-shuffling Takoru-kun of TV-Osaka is just one example. (Just try to get his ditty out of your head.)

Yakisoba
Fried soba noodles mixed with chunks of meat and diced vegetables, heaped into a plastic takeout container with chopsticks conveniently rubber-banded on. (Though, unfortunately — and particularly odd for a food as greasy as yakisoba - no napkins.)

Ikayaki
Best described as a fried egg laden with chopped squid and a liberal dose of mayo and barbecue sauce. Works well as a late-night snack and/or a surprisingly tasty dessert.
Other yatai foods worth a mention are the chijimi (spicy Korean pizza/crepe) platters of Tsuruhashi, range of momos of China-town, Motomachi, Kobe and a rare variety of Minoh's momijitempura (deep-fried maple leaves) and the suzumeyaki (barbecued sparrow) of Fushimi Inari shrine of Kyoto. Adventure awaits …