Osaka, Japan's second largest city, has long been known as the country's gastronomic capital or, as the locals say, the "nation's kitchen".

For centuries it has been famed for the quality and range of its food – from street eats to fine dining.

Osaka is a port city, a sprawling metropolis and bustling commercial hub where world-renowned corporations have their headquarters and the city's natives are equally renowned  for their passion for food. 

There's an old saying that Tokyo people ruin themselves by overspending on fine footwear, Kyoto people on fine clothing and Osaka people on fine food.

It is summed up by the Japanese word "kuidaore" which literally means to become poor as a result of one's over indulgence in eating and drinking.

Osaka's geographical location means it has been spoilt for choice when it comes to local produce. 

The city has long enjoyed a plentiful supply of seafood from Osaka Bay and the Pacific Ocean and rice and vegetables grown in neighbouring regions.


Informal dining

The market at Honjo has been trading in fish for nearly 500 years. Tuna sold here now comes from all over the world - from Indonesia and even the Gulf.

Traditionally, Osaka's rich merchants enjoyed spending their money on the best dishes available. 

However, you do not have to spend a fortune to enjoy a good meal and food is still cooked and sold on the street and eating in Osaka is less formal than elsewhere in Japan.

Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki are the most famous street food snacks - Octopus dumplings and cabbage fried in batter respectively. Eating in Osaka is less formal than elsewhere in Japan.

Historically, Osaka was dominated by merchants and commerce which created a less hierarchical society than in Tokyo where the influence of the Samurai means status is more important.

The main area for street food in Osaka is Dotonbori - a downtown area bathed in neon and especially popular with young people.

In Dotonbori and all over Osaka you will find many restaurants selling "fugu" - otherwise known as blowfish or pufferfish.

Fugu contains a poison hundreds of times more lethal than cyanide and has claimed thousands of lives.

Fugu - food to die for [Fauziah Ibrahim/Al Jazeera]

But that does not put people off and more fugu is eaten in Osaka than anywhere else in Japan. 

In fact, eating fugu is said to bring happiness and luck. By law, to be eaten safely, fugu must be prepared by specially trained and licensed chefs.

And there are plenty of budding candidates at the Tsuji Culinary Institute, which claims to be the world's largest cookery school, with about 3,000 budding chefs enrolled looking for careers in the city's many upmarket restaurants.

Dangerous eats

But there is another side to Osaka that is seldom seen by the wider world. Many people are forced to live hand to mouth and street food is very much for street people.

It is mostly men who are forced to camp out in the streets, victims of the economic woes of the 1990s.

Indeed this deprived side of Osaka has developed into a gangland of organised crime, drugs and guns.

Members of the locally-based Yamaguchi-gumi, the biggest and most notorious Yakuza family in japan, have a taste for Fugu.

They believe the poisonous fish suits their "devil may care" lifestyle.

Behind Osaka's facade of talking skyscrapers, flashing bulbs and neon glitz, the "kitchen of Japan" has never forgotten the basics - good food at the right prices, right where you want it, served fast.

Osaka is a city that looks to the future without leaving the past behind.

Source: Al Jazeera