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Down in Tokyo

KONAMON – Fast but Tasty: Cheap Eats in the Gourmet City -

Osaka, the second largest city in Japan, has established such a unique food culture that no one can deny that it’s become the capital of Japanese gastronomy.  Osaka-jin, or residents of Osaka, have created numerous original dishes and eating habits, but among their many creations KONAMON culture is the standout.  It’s unique to Osaka and is a compound of KONA, meaning, “flour,” and MONO, meaning “thing.”  The last syllable is dropped when Osaka-jin speak.  KONAMON literally means any food made from flour, but the best definition is cheap, casual fast food sold by vendors: Takoyaki (octopus dumpling), Okonomiyaki (pan-fried batter cake), Ikayaki (Flour coated grilled squid) and Udon noodles, to name a few. In Osaka, KONAMON vendors are everywhere and this being a city of gourmands, even the cheapest street food still tastes amazing.

We have to go back to the late 16th century if we want to explore the roots of KONAMON. At the end of the War Period in Japan, the general Hideyoshi Toyotomi took power and built the foundation of Osaka. The region developed rapidly and became the center of the economy, politics and culture. Osaka was a trading hub where every kind of commodity converged from across the country and just like the New York Stock Exchange, everything moved super-fast and businessmen had to be served right away.  Many vendors started making fast food using fresh ingredients that had just arrived at the market.  This high-speed living also contributed to what’s known as the “hasty” style of the Osaka-jin’s personality.

Probably the most famous KONAMON in the world is Takoyaki or Okonomiyaki, both of which you can find in New York City.  Ikayaki doesn’t get as much attention as Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki, but Osaka-jin love their Ikayaki, which costs about $2.  It’s cooked in a flash: half a portion of squid is dipped in a light batter and pressed between two iron plates.  It only takes a minute while Takoyaki takes three minutes and Okonomiyaki requires six minutes even at its fastest.  This speed is what makes it so popular among hotheaded, fast-living Osaka-jin.

Since Ikayaki is grilled while being pressed, it becomes as thin as a crepe, but chocolate sauce and whipped cream aren’t necessary to enjoy it - instead, you pour salty-sweet savory sauce over it.  Texture-wise there are some differences among Ikayaki, depending on what kind of flour is used and how long it’s cooked. The one in Momodani Ikayakiya, where Ikayaki originated is somewhat chewy but addictive.  Snack Park in the Hanshin department store, which sells more than 12,000 pieces of Ikayaki per day, serves crispier ones.  As the proverb says, “When in Rome, Do as The Romans Do,” so it’s mandatory for everyone to eat Ikayaki when they’re in Osaka.  

—— Text by Noriko Komura, and research by Hitomi Yasuhara.


Momodani Ikayakiya still uses the same machine to cook Ikayaki 50 years ago. 
www.ikayaki.co.jp


Snack Park in Hanshin department store records the highest gross in Ikayaki sales. 
There is always long line, but it moves relatively fast thanks to
the cooking machine which allows to produce 42 pieces of Ikayaki per minute.