Unbrave Eats: Kushi-Katsu

February 6, 2010

In order to dispel any lingering myths my dad might have still had about the inherent healthiness of Japanese cuisine, I decided to take him out for one last round of bad-for-you eating on his last night here in Japan. And you really can’t get much more unhealthy than deep-fried-stuff-on-a-stick or, as it’s called around these parts, kushi-katsu. Kushi-katsu translates to mean deep-fried cutlet (katsu) on a stick or skewer (kushi). While, it’s possible back in the kushi-katsu hey-days (whenever that might have been) they only used to fry up meat cutlets, these days you’ll find katsu can refer to vegetables, seafood, cheese, and, even, cream puffs… yes, that’s right, dead-fried cream puffs on a stick. Seriously.

You can find kushi-katsu places in almost any neighborhood in Japan. Even at the swanky new mall near my office, there’s a kushi-katsu place that will let you katsu your own kushi (err… deep-fry it yourself), should you be the kind of person that fears neither clogged arteries nor accidentally deep-frying a finger or two. But the place to go for kushi-katsu in this area is Shinsekai in southern Osaka.

Shinsekai also turns out to be the place to go if you’d like to get mugged. Shinsekai, which means “New World” in English, used to be quite the happening place back in, say, 1912. But the last one hundred years haven’t been so good for Shinsekai, and now this area is considered one of Osaka’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The Lonely Planet Japan guide claims this area is full of “raffish and suspicious characters.” The Japan National Tourism Organization’s description of Shinsekai (“squashed with small, cheap eating houses”) doesn’t exactly sound very enticing to the would-be tourist. Even the website run by the “Shinsekai Shopping Street Promoting Associations” starts off by asking “Do you have the guts to know everything about ‘Shinsekai’?”. And then it goes on on to list the attractions of Shinsekai, including the Jumbo Pachinko parlor (“bigger than a rocket”), pin-ball machine arcade (“out of fashion but popular”), a barbershop that offers 600 yen haircuts and gay bars (“come and enjoy with us”).

For a last night out in Japan, I figured a stroll around Shinsekai would be a great way to show my dad that A) all Japanese food is not healthy (in case he hadn’t caught that from the huge helpings of bacon okonomiyaki, deep-fried clams and fried yakisoba noodles we’d been eating all week) and B) Japan can, in fact, be dangerous. While, I was pretty convinced of the first point (heck, I practically invented the first point!), I wasn’t completely convinced of the second. After all, I’ve lived in Japan for three years and the biggest threat to my wallet and well-being during that time has been myself. After all, I’m the one who steals money from myself (and never gives it back). I’m the one accidentally setting myself and my toaster oven on fire on a regular basis. I’m the one stuffing myself with enough bacon okonomiyaki to clog my arteries. Sheez, compared to me, those “raffish and suspicious characters” of Shinsekai were starting to look like Mary Poppins!

After meeting my friend, Lisa, at the Dobutsuenmae subway station and moseying our way past a number of pachinko parlors, mahjong clubs and more kushi-katsu restaurants than you could shake a skewer at, we settled on a place on the main drag which offered seating on the floor and a menu in English. At which point, we had to make some pretty difficult decisions. For example, should we order beer or chu-hi? Should we even bother ordering a salad or just go deep-fried all the way (or maybe they had a nice, tasty, deep-fried salad we could try?). Should we get the chicken tight or the ass meat?! Should we go with the solt or sauce flavor?! As you can see, even with an English menu, ordering was not an easy process…

Luckily, we ended up making our decisions pretty quickly (neither chicken tight nor ass meat were one of our selections) and we had a huge plate of deep-fried deliciousness in front of us before we could even get halfway through our grapefruit chu-his.
We tried everything from the deep-fried pumpkin (amazing!) to the deep-fried chicken meatballs (yum!) to the deep-fried cheese (it’s cheese… it’s deep-fried… need I say more?!). Even though everything was deep-fried (other than our salad, which, surprisingly, was not offered in deep-fried form), all of it was not nearly as greasy or heavy as you might suspect. The batter was actually very light and crispy. So even though I’m sure we were clogging our arteries as we nibbled on each delicious bit of deep-fried glory, we at least didn’t feel like we were doing that much damage.

We managed to work our way through the entire pile of deep-fried delights, and, luckily, not run into any danger while hanging out in the mean streets of Shinsekai. Although there was a scary moment when Lisa brazenly double-dipped her deep-fried scallop after expressly being forbidden to do so by our menu. We feared some kind of retribution by the kitchen staff, who all looked a bit “raffish and suspicious,” if you ask me. But, luckily she got away with her illegal double-dipping… and we got away with our arteries still pumping (at least for now).

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