Oden, The Traditional Japanese Winter Food

You’ll often find that cultures originating from countries that have seasonal weather have different recipes to cook depending what time of the year it is. Those recipes are usually ingredients that are ripe for picking during that period. Then again, dishes could cater to help one bear the climate. Summers usually call for refreshing, fruity flavors, while winters are survived through bowls of hot, hearty soup.

As you may already know, Japan is a country that has four seasons, and each season totally abides by this cultural practice. It has been doing so for more than hundreds of years, as people cook certain types of food to cope with the environment. One of Japan’s traditional winter foods is the ever-dynamic Oden.

What Exactly Is Oden?

Oden is a dish in Japan that is made by adding several ingredients to one pot filled with soup and letting it stew there. It’s served mostly during winter time to help keep warm during the colder months, such as January, February, and even March. Components of this dish may include daikon (a winter radish), Konjac (elephant yam), fishcakes, and boiled eggs, all placed together in a broth made from dashi (savory stock) that tastes like soy. Some people like dipping Karashi in their oden to add more dimension to the flavor. Karashi is a variant of mustard that is widely available in Japan.

You’ll find oden in Japanese eateries, luxurious restaurants, and convenience stores nowadays (it pops up as a special seasonal offer during the winter in 7-Eleven), sold alongside other Japanese favorites such as onigiri, chazuke, kayu, soba, etcetera. Although it’s recently made a comeback in popularity, it holds a spot as one of Japan’s oldest comfort foods.

The History of Oden

It is said that the oden stew dish emerged during the Muromachi period, which lasted from 1336 to 1573, and was based on the “dengaku” dish. Dengaku intrinsically has some of the same elements compared to the oden, such as the daikon and konnyaku. Except in the Dengaku, they are boiled first, and then glazed with miso. The other ingredients such as eggplant and tofu are skewered and roasted before they are slathered with the white, rich miso paste.

The oden increased in popularity during the Edo period, which started in 1603 and ended in 1868. Additional ingredients were introduced as time went on – especially during the Meiji period, which occurred from 1868 to 1912. It would be served in train stations and would be a top choice for weary travelers looking to fill their stomachs.

The dengaku dish got its name from a performance that was also called dengaku. The dengaku piece was performed in ceremonies of the agricultural nature, asking gods to allow for a bountiful harvest. The performance involved pole-dancing, which is probably what stood as a metaphor for the skewered elements of the dish.

Meaning Behind the Name “Oden”

Because Oden is an inherently Japanese name, then it is written in Hiragana. However, if you would want to write it down in Kanji, the O is honorific, followed be “den”, represented by the character indicating a rice field. The “den” supposedly originated from the similarly patterned dish “dengaku”, whose ingredients are alike that of Oden, but cooked differently and lacking the broth that is used in oden.

On a side note, though some people think that the name “oden” refers to only the Japanese dish, it doesn’t. It’s also a surname, completely unrelated to the dish. It has Dutch and North German origins, and could have possibly stemmed from the name “Odo”, “Ott”, or “Oda”.

The Different Food Involved In Creating Oden

It doesn’t matter which ingredient choices you prefer to add to your oden, it all boils down to personal taste. There is no set way to fix your bowl. Though there are choices that are most often put in your bowl when you order a standard set, it isn’t always the same. Often, oden is made in a “do-it-yourself” style, prompting you to pick ingredients you enjoy the most. For example; daikon is almost always added to oden, as it is a popular choice, and comes with the classic rendition of the bowl. But if ever you don’t like it, you may add other ingredients instead – it’ll still (begrudgingly) be oden.

A Breakdown of Popular Ingredients in Oden

Konnyaku (Konjac) is a kind of root nicknamed “the devil’s tongue” for its black color and slit shape. It’s made into jelly or noodle-shaped gel bits (shirataki) and added into the oden for its salty taste, as well as its interesting texture.

Daikon is white radish, also known as winter radish, with its name “daikon” translating to big root. This low-calorie food does well in adding a hint of flavor to the soup, as well as sponging up the broth when you eat it. It isn’t as strong tasting as most forms of western radish

Tofu is a popular choice to add to oden, and it comes in many different forms. To name some, there’s mochiiri kinchaku, which is basically a soft pouch of tofu with a surprise mochi center. Next is atsu-age, which is a block of tofu that is simply deep fried. Then there’s ganmo; a disc of deep-fried tofu and vegetables. These are only a few of the many tofu variants that are sometimes added to Oden in different shapes, sizes, and consistencies.

Boiled Eggs, called Yude tamago in Japanese, are also a must-have in your oden. They harden a little bit with the temperature of the soup so their consistency is a little different, and they also lend a little bit of their eggy flavor to the broth. Boiled eggs also pack a lot of protein, making sure to keep you full until your next meal.

Surimi is the Japanese word for fish paste. Many processed food additions to soup are made from surimi, one of them being imitation crab meat. This is the same for kamaboko, which are steamed Japanese fish cakes. Other forms of surimi include chikuwa, hanpen, and satsuma-age. Chikuwa is surimi mixed with starch, sugar, egg white, and monosodium glutamate, formed into the shape of a tube and grilled. Hanpen is different shapes of boiled surimi. Satsuma-age is deep fried surimi, with some ground fish, onions, vegetables, and other seafood.

Tsukune is a chicken meatloaf formed into balls skewered on a stick, and are added as an extra protein option to your oden. While it’s not always available in a standard oden bowl, tsukune does make a great protein pick for a heavier bowl of soup.

There are many other ingredients that aren’t mentioned here but are worthwhile noting, such as potatoes, kombu (kelp), cabbage, octopus, beef tendons, kabocha (Japanese squash), and carrots. Depending on where you are eating your oden, regions have their own take on this winter dish.

The Variations of Oden

Depending on the area of Japan you’re in, they serve (and name) their oden differently. For example, “Kanto-ni” is what they call their oden Nagoya. Soy sauce is what they dip the individual ingredients. They use miso as a central theme of the soup, its body having a lighter and sweeter flavor compared to other oden – especially when compared to the super savory Kanto-daki version from Kansai.

As for the Shizuoka area, you’ll notice an immediate difference with the color of their soup, simmered with a heavier, darker soy sauce, as well as beef stock. The ingredients (tofu, radish, surimi, etcetera) that are boiled in this oden are pierced on barbecue sticks. The strong flavor may also be attributed to the seasoning used to top off their oden, which are made of aonori powder and ground fish.

Oden doesn’t necessarily have to be the focus of a meal. It can also be a side dish, which is what it is in Shikoku. If you ordered udon in a restaurant that specializes in those tasty noodles, you can expect to have some oden and miso as your complimentary dish.

Countries that have some Japanese influence also serve their own forms of oden, such as Taiwan (they call it “Olen” or “Tianbula”) and they add their own flair to it with blood pudding and pork meatballs. In 7-Eleven convenience stores market oden as a “good pot”, which is a direct translation of its name, “haodun”. As for South Korea, it’s a fish cake called “odeng”, and is accompanied with a spicy soup to make a delicious street food.

How Should One Eat Oden?

The truth is, oden can be eaten in any way you like, but mustard goes very well with it and is highly recommended to be added. Think of the meal as a box of chocolates; you can go for the pieces that you find most interesting first. You may sip the soup that carries the entire tang of the dish, or go right for the tofu, daikon, and fish cake with your chopsticks.

The Best Place in Tokyo To Eat Oden

While it’s easy to find oden anywhere once the temperatures hit cooler numbers, there are restaurants which are known for doing a good job in cooking certain dishes. When it comes to oden, Otafuku gives a proper, mouthwatering, and authentic experience. Otafuku has been making and serving its patrons oden for over a century now and has perfected its craft.

The beauty of Otafuku is not only found the perfection of its time-tested oden recipe collection passed from generation to generation, but also the ambiance of their restaurant, and their wide selection of oden (choose from 50 unique selections). Their interiors take you back in time to old Japan and give you an idea of what dining in a restaurant was like all those years ago.

To get to Otafuku, find a train that connects to Tokyo Metro Iriya Station. It should be a 10-minute walk from there. Its address is 1-6-2 Senzoku Taito, Tokyo. It’s usually open only for dinner on Mondays to Saturdays (5 PM to 11 PM. 10 PM on March to October) but on Sundays, it’s open for lunch, from 12 PM to 2 PM. Expect to pay 5,000 to 6,000 yen for this fine dining experience, but consider it as a check on your bucket list for tasting one of the most delectable oden in Japan.

Make Oden At Home With This Recipe

Want your dish on a spring day? Say, in April? Try cooking it yourself. As with most Japanese recipes, they’re gorgeous to look at and quite appetizing, but they can be a lot of work to prepare. You’ll need to peel a third of a daikon radish, 2 pieces of diced atsuage, 2 peeled and sliced potatoes, 4 boiled and peeled eggs, a cut-up konnyaku, 4 pieces of blanched ganmodoki, assorted surimi, knotted kelp, a teaspoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of sake, and 5 tablespoons of soy sauce. Or, you can pick from any of the ingredients – but this is the recommended setup.

It takes more effort peeling and chopping everything than the actual cooking process, because it’s as simple as creating the broth, and dunking everything in. Basically, boil the four cups of dashi stock, and add the liquid seasonings; soy sauce, sugar, and soy sauce. Follow up with the ingredients (tofu, eggs, fish cakes), and let it simmer for an hour. The longer you let it stew, the more flavorful it becomes. Serve in bowls, and enjoy.

Oden in Anime: Kozuki Oden from One Piece

While this is, in some ways, completely unrelated to the soup dish that is oden, one of Japan’s anime hits called “One Piece” has a character named Kozuki Oden. Kozuki is a daimyo; a Japanese feudal warlord in a place called Wano Country. The main characteristic of Kozuki is his selflessness and nobility, and for reasons unknown, was named after this soupy winter delicacy.

Oden is a dish that many love. It is sold almost everywhere when it’s most called for – during any given winter day. You don’t have to have a sophisticated palate to be able to enjoy this stew dish. Just be open to the different varieties (you can start out with egg if you like), and experience a morsel of Japanese culture.