Oden A Japanese Winter Dish

A simple tofu dish first appearing about 1200 years in Kyoto underwent a series of transformations as the years passed, finally evolving into the well-loved homey dish considered one of Japan's favorite comfort foods - oden! Lifting the lid off a slow-cooked pot of simmering oden releases a perfume of savory steam and a luscious visual array of ingredients that vary region to region and season to season, but typically include fish paste items, vegetables, hard boiled eggs, konnyaku, meat, etc. The ease with which a pot of oden can be put together belies its depth; each family's oden is an individual, distinct dish, full of favorite flavors. While delicious all year round, it is especially as we turn the corner towards autumn that oden is a dish to which we want to return again and again!


And now, with no further ado, let's get started! While oden doesn't require a lot of fancy tricks, there are some simple strategies to ensure a great tasting dish! First, grab yourself a big pot. A deep, heat retaining earthernware pot is a good choice, but if you don't have one, then a large, wide, shallow skillet will do just as well. However, it should be deep enough to comfortably hold a good amount of ingredients and enough soup to cover them completely. As the soup cooks down, you will be adding more to keep the ingredients covered, so remember to prepare enough to have on hand (make the extra batch a little weaker). Store-bought soup is easy and delicious, therefore you don't have to worry if you haven't the time to make it by scratch! As for the ingredients, a fun and tasty oden includes a big variety of different tastes and textures, so no matter how much you love hardboiled eggs and daikon, remember they shouldn't take over the whole pot!


Cook and peel some hardboiled eggs. Scoring lightly, make criss-cross surface incisions on daikon rounds and wedges of konnyaku and parboil them. This makes it easier for the soup to permeate the eggs, daikon and konnyaku once they are added to the oden pot. Before adding deep-fried ingredients, pour boiling water over them to rinse off any excess oil.


Once the soup has come to a boil, begin to add your ingredients, starting with the ones that will take the longest to cook. This is the typical order: 1) daikon, hard boiled eggs, konnyaku; 2) chikuwabu (cake of kneaded wheat flour paste), konbu; 3) tsumire (balls of minced fish), satsuma age (deep-fried fish paste); 4) hanpen (minced and steamed fish cake). Keep the pot simmering over a low heat because if you let it boil strongly you run the risk of having some items overcook and start to disintegrate, letting the soup reduce too much or become cloudy. If you are using a lid, don't put it on tightly as the soup may boil over. Even the most careful of cooks have their moments, and if in spite of your precautions the soup has reduced too much, never fear! Add some boiling water or some of the extra soup to the pot and you'll be good to go. Fish paste items only need to be simmered for fifteen to twenty minutes. Any longer and their flavors will all dissipate into the soup and they'll lose their delicate taste. Hanpen, even more fragile, should be added right before eating. Place them in the pot and gently spoon the hot broth over them for a minute or two until heated through. Forty-five minutes total cooking time is plenty.


Oden, in all its steaming hot, fragrant glory is what we think of when the temperature starts to drop, but truth is, it's so popular that it is enjoyed 365 days a year! In the spring, enjoy veggies such as takenoko (young bamboo shoots) or brussels sprouts; in the summer, add whole tomatoes, okra or zucchini and chill in the fridge for a refreshing twist on traditional oden; in the fall, potatoes, mushrooms and the like add a cozy feeling as the brisk winds pick up and carry us to the end of the year. And it's not only the ingredients that are flexible - try alternating traditionally seasoned Japanese soup with western or ethnic ones! The characteristic savoriness of oden is due to all the ingredients simmering and merging their flavors together in one pot. Nutrition-wise, oden is a great meal - low in calories, and the fish paste items have about the same amount of protein as the eggs. Toss in some green vegetables and it becomes a nearly perfectly balanced meal. But underneath all the delicious flavors lies the true meaning of oden - the appreciation of the flavors of one's hometown and one's family, and the gathering of everyone around the dinner table, sharing a meal together. And that is what gives us another, just as important balance - the balance of the heart.