Osaka takoyaki shop attracts more tourists after being featured in Michelin Guide

Umaiya's fourth-generation owner Taizo Kita refuses all offers to franchise the shop or sell frozen versions of his takoyaki. ASIA NEWS NETWORK/THE JAPAN TIMES

(ASIA NEWS NETWORK/THE JAPAN NEWS) - More foreign tourists have been visting Umaiya, a long-established shop selling takoyaki octopus balls in Kita Ward, Osaka, since it was featured in the 2016 Kyoto and Osaka Michelin Guide. It was the first time takoyaki shops had been featured by Michelin, which ranks restaurants and other eateries across the globe, and 11 outlets were included that year.

The first thing you see when you visit Umaiya is its huge signboard, which looks larger than a tatami mat. It's shaped like an octopus and made of blackened tinplate, illustrating just how long the store has existed.

Umaiya is located near the entrance to Tengo-nakazakidori Shotengai, a shopping street nicknamed Oideyasu-dori. Oideyasu means "welcome" in the Kansai dialect.

Umaiya was established in 1953. "I feel happiest when customers tell me that the flavour hasn't changed," said fourth-generation owner Taizo Kita, 39.

Umaiya's takoyaki dough is made with a thin batter of flour mixed with a bonito-based dashi stock. The thin surface is crispy, the inside chewy.

If takoyaki balls are grilled for too long, they absorb the oil and become hard. So after they've been sufficiently grilled, Kita removes them from the heat quickly, and places them in special warmers made of copper.

Umaiya preserves the traditional method of Osaka, the home of takoyaki, to allow customers to enjoy the dashi flavor in the dough.

Kita's great-grandmother opened Umaiya, and his grandfather and father each took over the store in turn. Kita had a different job after graduating from university, but he returned 14 years ago, aiming to succeed his father in the family business.

"When I'd just begun working here, my grandfather often told me, 'If you have time to eat takoyaki from other stores, eat our takoyaki to remember our own taste,'" Kita said.

Ever since the start of the Heisei period in 1989, takoyaki has faced a period of change. A half century after its birth, the dish suddenly gained nationwide popularity, but Osaka natives accepted the boom grudgingly because it was led by people living in Tokyo and the surrounding area.

Nippon Konamon Association head Mana Kumagai explained that the takoyaki boom began in the Kanto region when a Yokohama-based company opened a takoyaki store in 1993 in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, to capitalise on the food's popularity in the Kansai region.

Soon three takoyaki stores appeared in the same location and long lines of customers formed in front of them.

Kumagai's analysis of the phenomenon is that "people who enjoyed eating gourmet meals during the bubble era became interested in low-priced takoyaki".

One highlight of the changing times was the appearance of Tsukiji Gindako, now the nation's largest chain of takoyaki stores with 472 outlets nationwide.

In 1997, chain operator HotLand Co. opened its first takoyaki store in Gunma Prefecture, where the company was then headquartered. As takoyaki's popularity boomed in the Kanto region, the number of their stores increased.

But when the chain opened its first store in Osaka in 2000, some customers complained that it was "not takoyaki".

Gindako's takoyaki balls are grilled at high temperatures with cooking oil added at the final stage.

A HotLand spokesperson said: "This method is an effort to retain the shape and taste when they are delivered or customers take them home. But the texture, which makes the surface very crispy as if fried, is different from that of Osaka takoyaki, which led to negative reactions."

Despite the complaints, the company has not changed its cooking style - it has continued its expansion. Currently, the chain has as many as 10 stores in Osaka Prefecture.

Kita has a favourable opinion of Tsukiji Gindako's style, which has opened stores overseas and touts its desire to make takoyaki the soul food of Japan.

"It's great that more and more people are discovering takoyaki, isn't it? It's fine that both of us [Umaiya and Gindako] are trying to popularise our own versions of takoyaki at home and abroad, fueling the promotion of Japanese food culture," he said.

However, he added, "I'm not keen on having our takoyaki served elsewhere, if I can't see the expression on a customer's face when they say, 'This is Umaiya's takoyaki.'"

Therefore, Kita said, he has declined all offers to open other Umaiya outlets or sell frozen takoyaki under the Umaiya brand.

"For Osaka natives," Kumagai said, "it's like the dish is a part of our skin, so we didn't think it was worth talking about with others."

But now, these octopus balls are attracting attention from all over the world.

Kita said, "Ever since my store was included in the Michelin guidebook, I've wanted to offer much better takoyaki." The fourth-generation owner vowed, "My goal is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this store's opening."

He keeps in mind the cautionary lesson his grandfather strictly taught him: "You must know this store's own taste, which is different from that of other stores."

With his grandfather's words in his heart, Kita prepares takoyaki on the custom-made grill that was built especially for use at Umaiya.

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