I am jumping up and down in my socks on a small plastic bag. I feel a little anxious, not just because I’m aware of how silly I look – I’m surrounded by three other people doing the same thing – but because I know exactly what I’m stamping on: my dinner. More precisely, the bag contains a soft white dough made minutes earlier, and, if I follow my teacher’s instructions – which include the bag stamping – will apparently be transformed into deliciously slurpable Japanese udon noodles.
“This is the traditional way to make noodles,” smiles my lively cookery sensei Aya. “It’s the best way to get rid of all the air in the dough. Dance, dance, dance! Use all your weight until it’s completely flat! No mountains!” I hadn’t anticipated a dough-stamping session when signing up for my Japanese cookery class, having predicted something a little more Zen, with minimal participation from my feet.
Things, however, often unfold a little differently in Osaka. Japan’s second-largest city has long been celebrated for its lively take on life, from its famously hyperactive nightlife to the down-to-earth humor of its friendly residents. Osaka moves to a different tempo from the rest of Japan, and in particular Tokyo: Osakans even queue on the right side of escalators, compared to the left side preferred by Tokyoites.
Not to mention the food. From gingery grilled octopus balls and skewers of charcoal grilled chicken to thick, soupy udon and pancake-like okonomiyaki dishes, the city’s famed cuisine is as hearty as it is seductive. One company tapping into its culinary appeal is Eat Osaka, a school set up by Aya Lopez and Arisa Yamada, two thirty-something Osaka mothers born and raised in the city.
After renovating a small traditional house on a tiny lane in the bustling old-school Shinsekai district, they started to conduct cookery classes in English, sharing Osakan culinary gems. Arisa explains: “All the recipes we teach come from our moms’ kitchens. They are typically Osakan. The cuisine here is different from elsewhere in Japan – it uses a lot of flour and sauces. Actually, Osaka food is a bit like Osaka people: lively and a little boisterous.”
Keen to put this to the test, I sign up for an Osaka Street Food class and on a rainy Monday afternoon, make my way to the house, just a few minutes’ walk from the city’s vintage-looking, neon-lit Tsutenkaku Tower. I’m greeted warmly by Aya, and it instantly feels more like a family home than cookery school: after swapping my shoes for slippers, I enter a cozy room with wood and plaster walls, a cherry blossom split curtain leading to the kitchen and paper screens opening onto a small garden.
Center stage is a square formation of wooden tables, around which my fellow students gather. There’s a trio of slightly hungover airline staff stopping over from Europe – Tom, the pilot, and Agi and Mirja, two air stewards. With the gentle strains of traditional Japanese music playing in the background, we wash our hands, introduce ourselves – and get down to work.
First dish of the day? Kitsune udon, flat udon noodles in a sweet, light soup broth, with a sliver of deep-fried tofu floating on the surface. Using images on a school-like board, Aya explains kitsune means “fox” in Japanese – animals that apparently love tofu – before declaring brightly: “And now we are going to make noodles from scratch.”
We dutifully mix flour, water and salt in a bowl and knead it into a dough before things take a surreal twist. Aya hands each of us two small plastic bags, telling us to enclose the dough, place it on the floor and step on it – the double bagging is used in case of breakages. And so our unlikely noodle dance begins, laughing as we awkwardly knead with our feet, and trying not to think about the fact that it will soon be dinner. Stamping completed, Aya tells us to place the dough somewhere warm. Copying her example, we tuck it inside the back of our trousers.
Next, we tackle chicken yakitori – skewers of charcoal-grilled chicken, a favorite among beer-sipping Osakan salarymen. “The Japanese say the only part of a chicken we don’t eat is its voice,” smiles Aya. “We eat everything. Today, we’re cooking chicken thighs in a teriyaki-style soy sauce and sugar glaze.”