Oden: more than a simple stew
March 6, 2017
Photo: Phoebe Amoroso
If you’ve had limited exposure to Asian cuisines, your first encounter with oden may be somewhat like mine – one of general bewilderment at an array of unidentifiable ingredients. But oden is, in fact, incredibly simple – and tasty too. To neglect it would be to miss out not only on a quintessentially Japanese comfort food, but also the entire eating experience it entails.
Best described as a kind of soup or light stew, oden consists of an open metal pan with a selection of ingredients, such as tofu and fish cakes, in a light broth made from dashi (stock), soy sauce, sake and mirin (sweet rice wine). Customers choose their favorite items, which are then ladled into a bowl and eaten with karashi (mustard), or sometimes yuzukosho (citrus-chili paste) or a miso sauce. A popular winter dish, oden gives you that comforting, nourishing feeling only found in a good soup or stew, that makes you want to clasp the warm bowl and sigh contentedly.
What’s more, oden really transforms from simple dish to soul food at the establishments in which it is served. Diners traditionally huddle around a counter in front of a simmering pot, drink sake and swap stories, while working their way through a bowl, one morsel at a time.
Let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the basics, so you can begin your very own oden odyssey...
A brief history...
The earliest form of oden is said to be from the Muromachi period (1336-1573) and consisted of grilled tofu on a stick served with a dollop of miso paste. These sticks were known as “dengaku” as they were thought to resemble dengaku-hoshi (priests) who performed a rice-planting dance on stilts, dressed in white traditional trousers. Over time, the term was shortened to “den” and an honorific “o” was added to make “oden”.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), people began to simmer dengaku in a soy sauce broth. Oden gained popularity as a snack served from yatai (street carts) or by traders on foot, who would sling a wooden bar across their shoulders, with a pot of oden on one end, and a pot of warm sake on the other.
It wasn’t until the late Edo to early Meiji period (mid-late 19th century) that oden began to migrate to restaurants. Around this time, ingredients also diversified with the rise of fish paste products. A significant development, however, came with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. People from the Kansai region arrived in Tokyo to aid the recovery efforts, bringing their own version of dashi broth, which they served at soup kitchens due to its simplicity and easy-to-acquire ingredients. World War Two brought more migrants, and different food items and cooking methods with them. Through this, oden became established as a cuisine in its own right, distinct from its dengaku origins.
Japan is famous for regional variations in cuisine, and oden is no exception. For example, in the semi-tropical islands of Okinawa to the far south, the broth is pork-based and contains pig feet as an ingredient. In Shizuoka, a region that borders Mt. Fuji, the soup is made with a dark soy sauce and animal (often beef) stock, and a popular ingredient is black hanpen, a ground fish cake made from sardines and mackerels. Stores in Nagoya add locally-produced red miso, and oden in Aomori is served with a coating of miso-ginger sauce.
Where to eat...
Yatai (street stalls)
Yatai numbers are declining, although they can still be found around Fukuoka city in Kyushu, or at festivals. There are still a few carts setting up shop overnight, so if you spot one of these rarities, be sure to try it out!
Many oden restaurants are reminiscent of their yatai roots. Sometimes found in narrow alleys, cozy establishments will offer standing space or seats around a counter, where hungry customers crowd around the oden pan. Yet oden has also been refined into a high cuisine, with some places offering fine dining experiences and the price tag to match.
As early as September, a pan will appear near the counter in convenience stores, often with a picture menu, which helps with identifying the ingredients. Some stores are self-service, and others will serve for you. And some, as you can see from this picture, allow for either way. Best to ask if you're not sure!
The ingredients, including those for the broth, are found in virtually any supermarket in Japan. But if you want to keep things even simpler, you can buy a ready-to-go oden pack.
Now, before you scream “The stereotype is true! You can buy ANYTHING in vending machines in Japan!”, I would suggest that canned oden in vending machines are rather clever marketing. They’re famously found in Akihabara, the anime and electronics center of Tokyo, which is a popular tourist destination. And we all know tourists love souvenirs.
How and what to order...
Ordering is often fairly simple as the pan is normally visible, allowing for the reliable point-and-smile method. However, you won’t always be sat with a clear view and identifying all the ingredients can be tricky – a satsuma-age (fried fish paste cake) can look very much like a ganmodoki (tofu cake). Check our handy vocab list below for some guidance.
The variety of oden is vast. If you’re stuck for what to order, try daikon and a boiled egg as these commonly top lists of most popular ingredients. Order konnyaku (a grey, gelatinous triangle made from a kind of yam) for that textural experience you’ve probably yet to have; kinchaku, to tick off eating two very Japanese ingredients, tofu and mochi, at the same time; then a fish cake product – either chikuwa, or satsuma-age, or perhaps even marshmallow-like hanpen.
Some stores offer a miso-based broth in addition to the standard soy sauce. Definitely order this for a taste comparison! After all, you’re not being greedy...you’re merely harking back to oden’s historical roots.
Common oden ingredients:
– Japanese white radish
– grey, gelatinous triangles made from a kind of yam
– translucent, gelatinous noodles made of konnyaku
- (Mochiiri) Kinchaku
– a fried tofu pouch filled with mochi (chewy rice cake) and sometimes ground meat too
– thick, fried tofu
– round tofu cake which may contain vegetables and/or seaweed
– fishcake tubes
– white, spongy fishcake, either triangular or round
– round, fried fish cake, which may look similar to ganmodoki
– beef tendons
Text: Phoebe Amoroso
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