Quality not quantity

In the markets and restaurants of Osaka, snack food has been elevated to an art form. By Rebecca Baker
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Learning how to accept a business card is all part of the experience in Japan, where conforming to a complicated social code is almost an art form. A bit like preparing for an interview, you have to run through the rules in your head a few times before they stick: take the card with both hands, maintain eye contact with the giver for several seconds and then earnestly scan the name and make a few cooing noises about that, or the design. It also helps to be able to return the favour, which is tricky when the nearest thing you've got to cards of your own is a few crinkled scraps of paper with your email address hastily scribbled down in smudged ink.

But if the idea of playing by such a strict set of rules threatens to have you scarpering back to the airport, head instead to Osaka, Japan's second- biggest city. Osaka's lack of surface glitz is compensated for by an underlying authenticity. The locals are so proud of their heritage that, when they visit Tokyo, they famously exaggerate their Osakan accents rather than hide them. The Osakans tell it like it is. And, what they tell you most is that they are just as fun-loving, rebellious and downright ordinary as anyone anywhere else in the world.

Stroll beneath the city's gold-leafed ginkgo trees or take a ride on the Toy Town-like subway, Besides the squadrons of businessmen you will find a mass of punky-haired students plugged into their mobile phones, bunches of school children in flamboyantly customised uniforms or, like my guide for the day, the dapper, cravat-wearing Mr Haga, people who are as au fait with the Italian Renaissance as they are with their own city's history.

As Mr Haga explains, however, there is one rule that must be followed in Osaka. While you're in town, you have to eat takoyaki, the little dough balls filled with ginger, spring onion and octopus that are sold on nearly every city street corner.

Osaka, it turns out, is the snack food capital of the country. When it comes to nibbles, the surrounding region, Kansai, is Japan's fertile crescent. The locals take their pick from whatever the local sea, mountains and pastures can turn out to produce such culinary wonders as okonomiyaki ("cook what you like" pancakes, topped with meat, fish and vegetables), udon noodles cooked in a delicate kelp and soy broth, and nabe ryori, a local "hot pot" dish, where you cook at your own table. The city is so renowned for its gourmands, or kuidaore, that it even has its own motto: ordinary people like their food cheap and delicious.

Most cheap and delicious of all are said to be takoyaki, so I volunteered for a specialist cooking class in a quiet part of Osaka. Run by 75-year- old Yukiko Satake and her daughter Sachiko, the Wakatake Cooking School runs the most prestigious takoyaki courses in the city; of Osaka's 4,000 or so takoyaki chefs, over 1,000 have trained here.

Keeping a keen eye on me through her purple-tinted glasses, Yukiko ran me through the basics while Sachiko brought out glasses of iced green tea. First we were to mix the flour, water and egg to make a batter. Then you drop the mixture neatly into the heated up takoyaki machine, with its rows of little circular hollows. Sprinkle a tiny pile of octopus, ginger and onion in the centre of each circle and then wait for them to cook. Finally, just at the moment when the outside turns crispy, you tease each ball out with a skewer, flip it over and slot it back in upside down so that the other half of the mixture fills out into the hollow and forms the other half of a perfect circle. Simple, chuckled Yukiko mischievously. That might have been an understatement for her, with over 35 years of takoyaki-making experience, but it wasn't so easy for a first-timer. If you take your eye off one ball for a moment it will overcook, turning your takoyaki into a hot, scorched, gooey mess in an instant. Still, Yukiko was also a master of tact. "Aren't they sweet?" she said, surveying my stack of what looked more like soggy golf balls than the glittering mound of Ferrero Rocher-style spheres she had managed to produce. As for the taste - cheap I could agree with, delicious only if you like the idea of chewing phlegm.

If you think it's safer to be cooked for, make for Dotonbori instead. An urban Japanese wonderland of noisy pachinko parlours, giant hydraulic crabs strapped to the front of restaurants, puffed up paper fugu fish dangling from the relevant doorways and signs advertising all-you-can- eat sushi for a bargain pounds 6 a head, this is the heart of Osaka's downtown entertainment district. In its centre is something to make even the stomachs of Osaka's most hardened kuidaore skip - an enormous fifth, sixth and seventh floor theme park based around food: Dotonbori Gokuraku Syotengai.

The park opened last summer, and the concept has proved so popular that they're already getting up to 6,000 visitors a day. As weird as it sounds, you step out of the elevator and into a 1920s style street system, complete with costumed fortune tellers, a small theatre and a rowdy village square. You get used to seeing fake food as you travel round Japan - instead of written menus, restaurants will often set out plastic replicas of each of their dishes by the entrance so you know what to expect (much of it is bought from a single street in Osaka, Doguya-Suji). Here, the idea is taken to the extreme. So authentic did the park's designers attempt to make it, that as you wander around the streets you see pretend water running down pretend drainpipes, pretend tennis balls stuck in pretend gutters, pretend weeds growing from pretend stone walls and so on.

Fortunately, besides the hi-tech charge-card system on which diners run up their tabs, one thing that really is genuine is the food. The 40-odd restaurants all specialise in local dishes, from noodles and okonomiyaki to sake and castera, the little sweet cakes the locals got a taste for after being introduced to them by visiting Portuguese traders. The food's not to be scoffed at, either - one of the noodle bars was recently voted best in Japan. And, yes, you can get takoyaki here, in myriad different ways. I couldn't tell you if it's the best in Osaka, though. Some rules are meant to be broken.

English-speaking guides can be arranged through Osaka Goodwill Guides (00 81 6 6635 3143). The Wakatake cooking school can be contacted on 00 81 6 4807 9202. Dotonbori Gokuraku Syotengai is at the Sammy Ebisu Plaza building in Dotonbori, open 11am-11pm daily, admission costs Y315 (pounds 1.60). For more information call 00 81 6 6212 5515