Up to the late 1800s, kombu from Hokkaido was transported to Osaka—“the nation’s kitchen”—by boat via the Kombu Route, which stretched down the Sea of Japan coast, around Shimonoseki, into Seto Inland Sea, and from there to Sakai. The people of Osaka have preferred ma-kombu to other varieties since this time for its slightly different flavor from the rishiri kombu favored in Kyoto, which produces the rich, savory stock that underpins the distinctive flavor of Osaka. Sakai was a major kombu processing center, with approximately 150 processors at its peak in the early 20th century. The industry flourished due to Sakai’s proximity to Osaka, a major consumption center of kombu, and the local production of the blades that were so essential to kombu processing. Osaka became famous, not only for its stock kombu, but also its shio kombu (tsukuda-ni), oboro kombu, and tororo kombu. Ultra-thin hand-shaved oboro kombu is the crowning glory of Osaka’s food culture.
Beloved Near and Far: Osaka Sake Pairs Well with Food
In the Edo Period, Osaka became famous for having the best sake in Japan. “The nation’s kitchen” encompasses numerous well-known brewing locations, including Nada, Ikeda, and Itami. Sake from Settsu, Kawachi, and Izumi was also shipped to the capital in vast quantities, where it was valued as a premium tipple. Moreover, given the importance of sake and food to each other, it is little wonder that the quality of Osaka’s sake has long been sustained and improved by the vibrant local culinary culture. The finest local rice and pristine water results in sake with distinctive character, depth of flavor, and drinkability. Most importantly, Osaka’s food and sake bring out the best in each other. Prominent sake brands include Akishika and Goshun, which are breweries that are named after artists from historical times and are difficult to source even locally, as well as Katanosakura, Amanosake, Okushika, and Kuninocho.
The taste of Osaka is the taste of soup stock
The word umami, which has entered the global lexicon, may arguably be tracked back to dashi (cooking stock). An essential component of Japan’s food culture, dashi—a uniquely Japanese ingredient—first made its appearance in Osaka. Golden yellow in color, and continuing to serve as an indispensable element of Osaka’s food culture today, dashi in its most fundamental form is a mixture of kombu (dried kelp) and skipjack flakes. It may also be blended together with other ingredients such as dried sardines, dried shiitake mushrooms, or dried jakoebi miniature shrimp in order to create a flavor base for numerous types of dishes. Dashi is also integral to flour-based dishes (known collectively as kona-mon) that are famous standards of Osaka cuisine, including udon (wheat flour noodles), takoyaki octopus dumplings, and okonomiyaki savory pancakes. Additionally, dashi is routinely used inside the home when cooking simple everyday dishes. The basic element of Osaka-style flavor is a blend of kombu (dried kelp) and skipjack flakes. In addition to reaping handsome profits, merchants were also able to cultivate a two-way cultural trade between the two regions. The emergence of dashi—a quintessential element of Japanese cuisine—from Hokkaido kombu may be described as a superb product of this history. Rishiri kombu (Rishiri island in Hokkaido) found popularity in Kyoto. Meanwhile, makombu (“true” kelp) produced in southern Hokkaido was shipped directly in large quantities to Osaka, where its rich umami was favored by the local palate over its Rishiri counterpart. Makombu was later paired with flakes from dried skipjack fished in what are now Wakayama, Kochi and Kagoshima prefectures to create awasedashi blended cooking stock.
The glutamine acid from the kombu and the inosinic acid from the skipjack flakes worked together synergistically to coax out a beautifully strong umami flavor. High-end restaurants proudly serve their own unique versions of ichiban dashi (“first cooking stock”), which has been crafted from the highest-quality makombu kelp and skipjack flakes. The remains of the strained broth, are also carefully utilized by finely chopping the kombu and incorporating it with the skipjack flakes, which may then be used to create furikake (a seasoned powder for sprinkling) by adding a salty-sweet seasoning, or a dish known as tsukudani by boiling the mixture together with soy sauce and mirin (a sweet cooking saké). Osaka has the highest kombu consumption in all of Japan. The popularity of this northern item in Osaka—to the extent that it even became known there as a local specialty product—owes to the processing technology that exists in the region. Knife technology in Sakai facilitated the processing of tororo kombu (grated kelp) and oboro kombu (dried kelp in thin, wide strips); while the technology for shoyu in Wakayama prefecture resulted in the creation of salted kombu. In addition to dashi, numerous additional products continue to be processed from kombu today.
Osaka’s Fermented Foods:
Light Soy Sauce is Key
Soy sauce is classified as either light or dark, and the flavor of the Kansai region is underpinned by light soy sauce, which has a paler color and higher salinity than dark soy sauce. However, light soy sauce it not just salty; it contains sweet amazake to bring out its flavor and lighten the distinctive soy sauce odor. This is particularly well-suited to Osaka cuisine, allowing the delicate flavors and colors of its ingredients to come through. Indeed, light soy sauce aided the development of today’s refined, delicious, and beautiful Osaka cuisine.
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