Set of small obanzai bowls

→ Also ones in nearby Osaka, because we love obanzai restaurants there too.

With so many types of Japanese food, seeking out obanzai restaurants can be a little niche. We commend you for your in-depth knowledge of and interest in Japanese food! We’d like to take this opportunity to clearly define what obanzai is, what kind of food to expect at an obanzai restaurant, and how to maximize your enjoyment of it all. We’re also going to touch on what makes Kyoto and Osaka obanzai flavors a bit different from, say, Tokyo.

Obanzai is great because it’s affordable, and comes in small sizes. This allows you to enjoy many different tastes without getting too full on one item. But what makes obanzai different from other Japanese food formats? Grab those chopsticks, and let’s get edu-yum-cating!

Obanzai restaurants prepare their dishes ahead of time

Slow simmered goodness across four different tiny bowls of food
Now then, where to start?

The way obanzai restaurants are able to offer such variety at generally low prices relates to the preparation method. Obanzai is, pretty much by definition, never made to order. Tachinomiya (standing restaurant bars) and izakaya (“Japanese pubs” – but really more like restaurants) are where you’ll often find obanzai. These restaurants will generally make five to ten varieties of food that can be stored at room temperature. They do all this cooking before the restaurant even opens.

Not all foods are created equal when it comes to holding up at room temperature (or even refrigerated, as is sometimes the case) over a number of hours. For this reason, you will often find simmered and stewed items, salads, and perhaps some pickled items too. Traditional Japanese food does not include green salads, but rather mixed vegetable salads in a light dressing. That said, Japanese many years ago took a strong liking to potato salad, so you shouldn’t be surprised to find that on offer!

Pickling beyond the usual daikon (Japanese radish)

pickled quail eggs
May pickled quail eggs rise into glory and leave pedestrian cucumbers behind!

You may not have thought about pickled eggs as something Japanese, but why not? The picking style is somewhat different from western approaches, as it is a bit sweeter. And the eggs are usually not big ‘ol chicken eggs, but rather quail eggs as pictuled above. Sorry, it was just irresistible. Incidentally, when it comes to potato salad, you may sometimes find (barely) hard boiled eggs in it, but you will never find vinegar. The potato salad genre in Japan is creamily dominated by mayonnaise based concoctions, often with some thinly sliced cucumber in the mix.

Who just got us started on potato salad? We think the apanese style is fantastic. Aside from mayonnaise dominance and maybe a bit of cucumber floating about, another common feature of potato salad in Japan is the potato prep itself. Sure, the potatoes are usually just boiled, but the twist is that half of the potato will be mashed up and half will stay chunked. It’s almost like half a mashed potato consistency, with a busy archipelago of potato chunks. What about when the potatoes aren’t just boiled, you ask? They are sometime boiled and then smoked for a certain added oomph. And why not put some thich cut uncured bacon pieces in too? Sorry if this ruins it for the vegetarians, but it’s just the way the “potesala” has evolved here. We sometimes just have to accept what life gives.

Obanzai restaurants often have “nanban” fish on the menu

pickled mackerel
We’re not done pickling yet.

Just when you thought it was safe to put the pickling platitudes post packed, here we are. When it comes to fish dishes, “nanban” refers to a style of cooking (and also something completely different) where the fish is floured, pan fried, then pickled for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days or so. The most commonly used fish for this baby mackerel. Being a whitefish, the pickling marries well. Additionally, since the fish is small, the bones are small. Small enough to be rendered harmless and completely edible by the end of the frying and pickling process. In fact you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth, from head to tail.

Usually when restaurants set out to pickle their baby mackerel, they add in some thinly sliced onions, carrots, what have you. It makes for a very nice compliment having that mild onion bite with the vinegary fish. Although this dish is generally available any time of the year, it’s considered a good food to enjoy when the weather is hot. A bit of vinegar is good for you!

You might appreciate a little assistance

Our favorite place to get ko-aji nanban (pickled baby mackerel) is at one of the mainstay restaurant stops on our Osaka night tour. This restaurant hasn’t changed their recipe for decades, and there is certainly no reason to start doing so now! By the way, our Osaka night food tour stops in a total of three restaurants in two neighborhoods and features an awesome urban cultural walk too, so don’t miss out! When you’re with us, language barriers disappear, and magical foods start to flow as freely as the camaraderie.

Root vegetables make for perfect obanzai restaurant fare

Assortment of five different obanzai dishes on a single round plate.
There’s a method to the madness, and it’s delicious.

Gobo, or “burdock root” in English, is a real winner and you shouldn’t miss out on it while traveling about Japan. Even after fully cooking the root, it has a pleasing light crunch or crispness. There’s also a nice nuttiness which graciously imparts a delicious flavor depth regardless of the company it finds itself in. In the melange above, gobo is front and center, mixed with carrots slices. Most often, gobo is lightly sauteed with carrots before going with more a Japanese style dressing (soy sauce, sesame oil, etc.). Here, the chef has gone whte mayonnaise route, which is quite alright too!

Obanzai restaurants often offer the choice of a single item, a set of 3, or a set of 5. There are four other items on the “moriawase” (assortment) you see above. Poached chicken breast with seaweed and a light dressing is just clockwise. Chicken breast dries out easily, but this chef deftly prepared it! Next going clockwise is “dashimaki tamago” (Japanese omelet), complete with dried katsuo fish flakes. Then there’s a sweet green pepper and sesame salad, followed by none other than my much talked about potato salad! Note that this one has ham and cucumber slices in its constellation.

What about the regional variations?

The Kyoto and Osaka area tend to use less soy sauce and more fish stock in their recipes. This doesn’t make things taste particularly fishy, but once you’re attuned, the fish/soy balance often jumps out at you as you travel between regions. The omelet dish just discussed above is something we often serve on our Kyoto food and culture tour, and it is very typical of the Kyoto style.

Another regional difference lies in meat preferences. When people in greater Kansai (largely formed by Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe) say meat, that most often means “pork”. When people in Kanto (greater Tokyo and Yokohama) say meat, it tends to mean beef. Of course, there are words for “pork” and “beef” specifically, but here I am discussing the implied meaning when just saying “meat”.

Obanazai restaurants: pick, choose, peck, and discover

We hope you agree that obanzai restaurants offer a fantastic way to try out many different flavors. But there really is almost no such thing as an obanzai-only restaurant. A nice restaurant visit often starts with a drink and some obanzai, then moves on to hot, often more substantial foods. This is the joy of tachinomi and izakaya restaurants: you are spoiled for variety. Thanks for reading, and do check out the rest of our tours, both food and non-food oriented! Or just get in touch with us if you’d like some custom tour planning or even just a bit of free advice.

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