A tray of various kushikatsu with food like asparagus, lotus root and mushroom

Kushikatsu: Osaka's Comfort Food on a Stick

There’s something about food on a stick that is just so satisfying to eat. Meanwhile, fried foods also somehow manage to both be delicious and offer comfort. Leave it to Japan’s Kitchen, Osaka, to combine these two ideas into one filling, affordable and delicious dish called kushikatsu.

Kushikatsu is right up there in the Osaka food scene with the likes of okonomiyaki and takoyaki in terms of fame in Japan. But what exactly is this dish? Are there any regional varieties? What do we do with the sticks after eating? Read on to get the answers to your burning question about kushikatsu!

What is Kushikatsu?

A pan of cooked kushikatsu with various ingredients like sausage and eggplant
One of the great things about this dish is the variety, making it feel more like a category than a single dish. Image via Instagram (@momonomamo)

Simply speaking, kushikatsu (also known as kushiage) is a dish of deep-fried meats and vegetables on a skewer. Ingredients are skewered on a bamboo stick, coated in a batter with a flour base, covered in panko breadcrumbs, and deep-fried.

When it’s done, you can dip these crispy fried skewers into your choice of sauce for added flavor. This dish pairs well with a cold beer and almost always includes unlimited cabbage when you order it.

Ingredients on the skewer can include meats like beef, pork, chicken, octopus and shrimp; vegetables like onion, eggplant, lotus root, and mushrooms; and other items like cheese, mochi and quail eggs. All of these ingredients get a delicious golden outer coating with the perfect amount of crunch.

The ingredients tend to be pretty basic, allowing shops to buy them for a low cost and sell kushikatsu at affordable prices. However, recent specialty shops have changed the game with high-class offerings like wagyu, oysters or fugu.  

A single stick of kushikatsu with a sea urchin topping sits on a plate
Despite its blue-collar roots, high-end kushikatsu shops exist and create luxury skewers like this one topped with sea urchin. Image via Instagram (@yasulog.jp)

For the sauce, the standard dipping option is either tonkatsu sauce or kushikatsu sauce, a sauce that combines the Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce. However, mustard is also popular for how well it goes with fried food, and soy sauce is an option that adds a lightly salty taste.

Kushikatsu Variations

Osaka (Kansai) Style

Osaka is said to be the hometown of kushikatsu, so what we described above is basically it for the Kansai version. However, there is one important detail about Osaka style when compared to Tokyo style.

Osaka style skewers tend to include a single ingredient on a single skewer. For example, you may have three pieces of chicken or two slivers of onion on a single skewer, but never both. Also, for many Kansai folks, these skewers are always called kushikatsu.

Two sticks of fried onions sit on a plate on a shop counter
One of the great things about kushikatsu shops are that many of them have counter seats where you get a close-up view of your food being made.

Tokyo (Kanto) Style

Tokyo and the rest of the Kanto region tend to call this dish kushiage, but both names are totally understandable. Tokyo style kushikatsu also tends to be a bit more in favor of mixing ingredients. You may see skewers with two ingredients on it, like alternating pork and green onion.

Plus, the way sauce is added is different between Tokyo and Osaka. While Osaka uses a dipping technique, Tokyo favors the use of smaller sauce dishes that hold both sauces and other seasonings, like salt.

Nagoya Style

A plate of fried skewers with Nagoya's miso sauce and green onions on top
Nagoya-style stands out with a simple yet delicious ingredient that manages to change the skewer game. Image via Instagram (@soreike.risachanman)

The Nagoya style is similar to the Osaka style thanks to its proximity. However, Nagoya adds a unique touch with its sauce choice. Nagoya is famous for its tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) because of its special miso sauce, hatcho-miso.

Using this hatcho-miso, shops create a new miso sauce that is perfect for dipping kushikatsu. That’s why Nagoya is known as the birthplace of miso kushikatsu.

The Origin of Kushikatsu

A night scene of Osaka's Shinsekai area with lit up shop signs, 3D billboards and people
This fried skewer dish comes from a part of Osaka that is known for good food, bright lights at night, and some fun 3D signs. Image via Unsplash

As we mentioned earlier, kushikatsu is an Osaka original, and its history goes back almost 100 years. Supposedly, this skewered creation began in Osaka’s Shinsekai neighborhood. The story goes that a female shop owner in 1929 created the dish in order to feed day laborers working in the area.

She wanted to make a dish that was both affordable and filling so that the area’s workers could get a cheap meal that keeps them full. The key was to cut up hearty ingredients like meat, potatoes and other veggies into smaller pieces, put them on a stick and deep fry them.

This new dish was a hit with the laborers thanks to how filling, affordable and tasty it was. It then quickly spread around Osaka and the rest of country.

In fact, according to Dotonbori’s official tourism site, the popular kushikatsu restaurant chain, Kushikatsu Daruma has been open since 1929, despite not being the shop that created this dish.

Kushikatsu Etiquette

Never Double Dip

A large display of Kushikatsu Daruma's mascot, the Angry Chef, holding two skewers and looking angry
This is the mascot of Kushikatsu Daruma, the Angry Chef. Want to know why he's angry? He HATES double dipping customers. Image via Instagram (@yuko_55)

While many kushikatsu shops provide individual sauce plates, most will give you a containers of sauce for your party to dip into. In fact, pre-pandemic, shops would just have one communal container per table per day that everyone dipped into (and some still do this).

That’s why double dipping is a BIG no-no. It taints the sauce and is just considered rude all around. Even if you get a new container for you or your group, Japan still finds it a little rude. In fact, if you come to Japan, you’ll often see signs and warnings on menus reminding you not to double dip. That’s why these next two tips are important, so pay attention!

Use Your Cabbage

Like we said, almost every kushikatsu shop provides unlimited, uncooked cabbage to customers. We like to think that the cabbage serves three functions. First is that it’s something to eat or snack on while you wait for your food, but that’s the least relevant. The second (and the official reason) is that the fresh cabbage helps to cut the oiliness and cleanses the palate in between sticks of food.  

However, there’s a third function that some smart individual put together. Sometimes, you don’t get the perfect dip, or you don’t want to dip it in completely. In that case, you can actually use the cabbage to scoop out sauce and pour it over your skewers! This is a great way to avoid double dipping while also getting just the right amount of sauce.

A plate of two meat kushikatsu coated in a light sauce over lettuce
While most places provide bottomless cabbage, some will just provide cabbage alongside the skewers as they come out. Image via Instagram (@tekuteku_mg)

The Diagonal Dip

One more great way to avoid double dipping is to use the perfect dipping technique. Your dipping technique will reveal whether you’re a pro or an amateur. You see, a true amateur will dip their stick directly down into the sauce, leaving the bottom of the skewer without any sauce.

A pro, on the other hand, will utilize the diagonal dip. The diagonal dip is when you put the stick in at an angle to get the maximum area of coverage. This will also help to prevent double dipping as you’ve already achieved the perfect sauce coat.

Use Your Skewer Cup

What do you do with the kushikatsu skewers when you’ve eaten crispy goodness off of it? Well, shops will usually have a bamboo (or faux-bamboo) cup that you can place the empty skewers in.

This not only helps to keep the table clearer and more sanitary but it also helps the staff to pick up plates without being poked by sticks. The same goes for other skewer-centered dishes, like yakitori.

A dessert kushikatsu with a lighter appearance and two cone-shaped chocolates on top
We can't end the article without mentioning that some shops have created dessert skewers with different sweet fillings! Image via Instagram (@osaka.otaguro)

Now that you’re a kushikatsu pro, all you have to do is come to Japan and eat as many skewers as you can. It’s really the only way to become a pro. Have you ever tried kushikatsu? What’s your favorite ingredient? Let us know in the comments!

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