Translated by Hilary Keyes
Japanese Encyclopedia: Oden
Written by ニコ
Oden is a boiled dish that Japanese cuisine just wouldn't be the same without. Warm in the winter, chilled in the summer, oden is a standard of Japanese home-cooking that just cannot be missed. But what is it?
What Kind of Food is Oden?
Oden is a type of boiled Japanese cuisine.
First appearing in the Heian era, the term oden comes from the dish tōfu-dengaku: a simple dish that featured tōfu cut into oblong slices, skewered and sprinkled with salt, before being cooked. "O" is an honorific typically added before words that refer to another person; you may also find oden written as "o-den".
Over time, miso bean paste was added to the original ingredients, then potatoes and other foods were added and the name ultimately lost its original Japanese kanji characters and was simply referred to as "oden".
Oden as we know it today began to take form during the last days of the Edo era and afterwards spread throughout Japan where it took upon its own regional characteristics.
Around the 1940s more people began making oden at home and it turned into a simple and beloved dish where you put the ingredients you want into a pot and boil them.
The Flavor and Variety of Oden
There are two main ways to flavor oden: by boiling the ingredients in a light soy sauce and kombu seaweed base (popular in the Kansai region), or in a bonito and dark soy sauce base (favored in the Kanto region). People from the west of Japan tend to favor the Kansai style, while those from the east prefer the Kantō style.
However, for the Nagoya area, which sits squarely between the Kansai and Kantō regions, miso-based oden is considered the standard recipe.
What are the Common Ingredients in Oden?
The ingredients that make up oden are called tanemono, and mainly consist of root vegetables like daikon radishes and potatoes, as well as eggs, konnyaku, and chikuwa or satsumage, two popular types of fish-based nerimono.
Oden is mainly made with a wide variety of nerimono: burdock-maki, squid or shrimp-maki, quail egg-maki, weiner-maki - all of these ingredients feature a type of food rolled up in minced fish paste.
There are also many regional ingredients. For example, especially in the Tokyo and Kantō region, suji (a type of cartilage-containing white-fish ball) and chikuwabu (a boiled, chewy flour-paste cake in the shape of a tube) are two popular ingredients.
On the other hand, in Kansai where you find Osaka and Kyoto, dried whale skin or tongue known as koro or saezuri were once particularly popular. Now, as it is impossible to get whale meat, octopus skewers or beef tendon skewers are preferred by most people.
The ingredients for pre-made oden purchased from shops or convenience stores run anywhere from 70 to 100 yen per piece, while homemade oden kits are available at supermarkets for fairly reasonable prices as well.
There are Unusual Ingredients too?!
The varieties and types of vegetables included in oden have increased and developed over the years. Now, there are not only Japanese-standard flavored soups, but tomato-based, curry-based and even cold oden for the summer on the market. And, along with the old ingredients, you can now find whole tomatoes, cabbage rolls, broccoli, bamboo shoots, lotus root, okra and many other unexpected foods in oden pots all across Japan.
Meet the Locals at an Oden Shop
Other than oden specialty shops, you can find this dish being served at izakaya (pubs), and food carts or sold at supermarkets and convenience stores, making oden a dish that can be easily eaten whether at home or out on the town.
However, for the full oden experience, it's a lot of fun to head out to a oden shop, izakaya or food cart and chat with the locals as you enjoy this simple yet hearty dish.
A great souvenir, you can even find local oden packs or canned oden at hardware stores and some electronics stores.
Wow! Regional Oden
You have to travel all over Japan if you want to try distinctly regional oden.
You can find oden with scallops and whelk from the northern sea in Hokkaido Muroran-style oden; Aomori-style has the unusual large rectangular tempura-esque nerimono known as daikakuten; crab meat stuffed into its shell in kanimen in Kanazawa-style; chicken soup based oden with gyōza-maki in Hakata; or pigs' feet or spam garnished with seasonal vegetables in Okinawa. If you can, you should really try out each type of oden available in Japan.
Two types that really stand out are Shizuoka-style and Nagoya-style. Shizuoka-style features pork gibblet dashi (soup base) where the ingredients are topped off with flour and served with green dried seaweed. On the other hand, Nagoya-style oden features beef tendon and taro slowly boiled in a broth with Nagoya's famous Hacchō miso paste; the oily texture of the meat and taro is superb!
When you find yourself traveling to different parts of Japan, by all means please make sure to stop by a supermarket or convenience store and pick-up some of the delicious regional oden that you find there. You won't regret it!