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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Gourmet Reporter

Ayuko Okano

Mar. 23, 2016

An American food journalist is helping to boost Osaka's appeal by reporting on its local cuisine.

Steve Dolinsky has reported on everything food-related for more than two decades, online and on TV and radio, from more than 15 countries.

Officials in Osaka invited him to explore, and to help spread the word about the city's unique food culture.

Japan has been experiencing a surge in tourism, and saw a record number of foreign visitors last year -- almost 20 million. Tokyo and Kyoto are the most popular cities.

But Osaka is another spot that's attracting travelers. It's only 15 minutes by bullet train from Kyoto. Osaka's tourist office is hoping to attract more visitors from Europe and the United States by promoting its local cuisine, which is quite different from Tokyo and Kyoto.

During Dolinsky's visit, he spends time in Kuromon Market, also known as "Osaka's kitchen," to try some local specialties and share the experience with his audience.

"It's like butter. It is so soft, tender, rich, fatty, just delicate -- beautiful," he says after tasting some "maguro," or fatty tuna sashimi.

Dolinsky wants to get to the heart of Japanese cuisine through the "dashi" soup stock that serves as the base of many traditional dishes.

Dashi, often made with dried kelp and bonito fish, provides a savory taste called "umami."

Dolinsky visits a long-established kelp store, and asks questions about how Osaka has developed its unique food culture.

"Are there different types of dashi, different types of ingredients?" he asks.

"In Tokyo they don't use a lot of 'konbu' kelp. In Osaka we use it a lot. The taste of Osaka is konbu," a staff member replies.

Osaka enjoys a long history as a center for commerce. Many foods from across Japan are distributed through the city, including top-quality konbu kelp from the country's north.

Making dashi is a simple process. The kelp is first soaked in cold water then simmered as a hot broth. The flavor develops quickly.

"Amazing! Amazing how much that changed in 15 minutes," Dolinsky says.

Small pieces of dried bonito are added to the pot.

"Now it completely fills your mouth. It takes over all your senses and you feel it over your tongue and it actually connects to somewhere in the back of your head too," Dolinsky says.

Next stop is a popular restaurant that serves "okonomiyaki," a type of savory pancake stuffed with a variety of ingredients. It's an Osaka staple.

The owner and chef is known to be extremely particular about the type of dashi he uses.

"What makes this okonomiyaki shop different from the other shops?" Dolinsky asks him

"We use a lot of kelp. That's what we do here in Osaka," the chef replies.

"Interesting, because you've got beef in there, which is savory, and then you've got the batter made with 'katsuobushi' and 'konbu dashi,'" Dolinsky says.

The owner is happy to answer questions while he cooks. Dolinsky discovers that casual conversation across the counter is another feature of eating out in Osaka.

"Are you getting tired of okonomiyaki?" Dolinsky asks him.

"No. I never get bored. I often eat okonomiyaki. The taste has changed over the past 18 years," the chef replies.

The following day, Dolinsky moves upmarket. He chooses an establishment that offers "Kappo-ryori" cuisine, a type of fine dining.

Cooks there use fresh, seasonal ingredients, laying them out carefully on serving dishes.

Dolinsky loves to try new flavors and tastes. And he shares his Osaka highlights with radio listeners back in the United States.

"What is 'kappo' up to, is it on the rise?" a radio anchor asks him.

"That's the whole point of kappo, is that you're having this interactive experience. You are able to talk to chefs and ask them questions. Really point, and look at ingredients. If folks have questions they can get them answered right away," Dolinsky says.

"You can come here, not spend very much money, but eat like a king. If I want comfortable, approachable, friendly, sort of 24/7 eating, I come to Osaka," he says.

"Arigato gozaimasu, or as they say here in Osaka, ookini!"


NHK World's Ayuko Okano joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: It was Steve's first time in Osaka. He was enthusiastic about his visit, wasn't he?

Okano: Yes. After returning to the US, he wasted no time uploading his findings on the Internet. In an article, he discusses a Japanese snack called "Takoyaki." I was born and raised near Osaka, and for me, the key to Takoyaki's deliciousness is the sauce. But what surprised me is that Steve wrote that he liked the taste of the "dashi" soup stock used in the dough of Takoyaki. It was interesting to discover that people notice different flavors in food. This could be the key to attracting more foreign tourists.

Beppu: How do Osaka officials, how are they trying to attract more foreigners, particularly Westerners?

Okano: Officials say Western tourists stay for longer periods than those from Asia. They hope the abundant varieties of food in Osaka will keep long-term visitors coming back. Also in Osaka, people are generally more outgoing and frank than those in Tokyo or Kyoto. Officials believe this point will be attractive to Western tourists seeking interaction with locals. Here's what an Osaka tourism official had to say.

"Japanese cuisine has its roots here in Osaka. We hope to actively promote what foreigners find fun, delicious and interesting by inviting bloggers or the media to visit."
Hiroshi Mizohata, Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau chief

Osaka has been described as a city of "Ku-ida-ore." It's a phrase meaning to eat yourself to ruin. Officials at the bureau hope to promote this culture to overseas tourists, especially those from the West.