A gourmet eating into bankruptcy

Last night, Google News decided to suggest for me an article titled Japan: Eat yourself bankrupt from the New Zealand Herald.

Ugh, “食い倒れ” (literally “to eat oneself bankrupt”), a famous saying that usually describes the passion for food of the Osaka people. I clicked the link eagerly to see what discoveries the writer might bring regarding the Osaka eating culture.

To my disappointment, the article turned out to be nothing more than keywords of basic Japanese street food and Osaka tourist spots. Shinsaibashi (心斎橋), takoyaki (たこ焼き), Dotonbori (道頓堀), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)… It was saddening to continue reading.

Please don’t get me wrong, I have all due respect for writers of any kind. It’s not you, it’s me. I had over-expected. It might be a good entry piece for certain readers. Maybe the writer was too overwhelmed by the trip, he had to include highlights of everything, which happened to be the most general ideas of Osaka? Trust me, judging other people’s work is the least I would want to do.

But I was disappointed. There’s just too much to write about this eating obsession in Osaka. “京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ,” a saying that refers to Kyoto people’s fixation with attire and Osaka with food, neatly sums up the cultures and histories of the two cities in merely 12 characters. The two cities, among the most representative in Japan, that are geographically so close but regionally so distinguished!

According to the expression, ethos of people of the historic Kyoto is to spend liberally to look luxurious; while people of Osaka, a historically merchant city, tend to spend on food and more practical things unreservedly. Which brings out the rivalry between the two Kansai cities: Kyoto people would mock the practicality or money-oriented mindset of Osaka people; in return, Osaka people would ridicule Kyoto people’s superficiality and pretentiousness.

So Kyoto is the snob and Osaka is the fat kid. That’s funny. OK, in revised wording: Kyoto is an elitist and Osaka is a gourmet.

Speaking of gourmet, the Japanese equivalents would be “食道楽” (someone who enjoys good food) or “食通” (a person who is culinary and gastronomically knowledgeable).

Due to common misuse of the word in today’s marketing, our idea of “gourmet” might be closer to “haute cuisine,” or a person who frequents classy restaurants and is constantly exposed to exotic food. Original meaning of this French word, however, is rather down to earth and simply means an aficionado of delicious food who has a refined palate. Meaning: we don’t need to be eating foie gras and caviar every meal, or be celebrity chefs who travel to the end of world to cook outdoor with local ingredients, in order to be gourmets!

And Wikipedia defines wine tasting to be an activity for gourmets. That’s a new point of view, I thought, especially when going to a tasting is commonplace these days. Or is it because I’m in the business? But friends who aren’t seem to have some form of tastings to join on weekly basis, too. Wine, whiskey, oyster, craft beer… Every now and then there’s something fresh to the ears like a rum tasting or a curry pairing, yet apparently we speak of going to a tasting as if we are going to the movies or even happy hours.

Is such phenomenon in Hong Kong unique? Does it make Hong Kong a gourmet city?

You can look up on the internet something like “top food cities in the world” and you will be shown various rankings from big and small establishments. Paris is predictable; then you see New York City and Tokyo from time to time. In recent years you hear more of Barcelona, San Sebastián, Singapore and hey, Hong Kong! Hi NYC and Tokyo, we have conquered the financial world AND the gourmet scenes! High fives!

That’s why it came to no surprise when Hong Kong fund Dynasty Holding acquired Dotonbori’s Nakaza Kuidaore Building (中座くいだおれビル) in February 2015 – the very landmark where Osaka’s symbolic Kuiodare Taro crown stands. What, now you want to take down another gourmet rival Osaka? Hong Kong, when did you become so invasive? I don’t know you anymore!

Just joking. Dynasty Holding claims the acquisition was purely for investment and networking reasons in the central Osaka area and the Kuiodare Taro clown will be staying to drum his heart away on Dotonbori to attract more tourists. Nothing personal, it’s just business.

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