Winter in Tokyo doesn’t come suddenly nor slowly. It sweeps in and out of the country, alternating between temperate and cool weather, gradually turning into long spans of freezing days by late October or November. And while you agonize about whether to take out your cold-weather clothing while still in your short sleeves and light jackets, your best weapon to keep you warm in during the unexpected freak freezing days is some steaming hot, tasty food.
For what do the Japanese crave when the weather turns bitter cold? Chances are your first answer is ramen, but what I have in mind is something quicker that goes pretty well with rice. It’s sitting right there near the fried food display at the register counter in the convenience store, inviting you with its steaming cauldron of comforting soup. This, my friends, is oden.
The origins of oden are pretty surprising. Dengaku, konyaku with a sort of gummy, gelatinous texture made from the Konjac (devil’s tongue) flower, didn’t originally have that salty soup which is characteristic of oden. Eventually someone during the Edo period who noticed that konyaku soaked up warm soup really well decided to throw it in with other foods that sponge up soup, in order to make a great dish that was easy to sell in small stalls lined up next to yakisoba and yakitori.
It is that displayable quality which makes oden a much favored food. Oden is also popular because of its variety of ingredients, as well as additional seasoning such as miso or yuzu paste to customize the soup according to one’s taste. If you keep ignoring oden because you don’t know how to order, you are missing out on a delightfully warming comfort food.
To order oden you need merely line up at the register and say that you are ordering oden, and then the clerk will attend to your order. Choose the size of the bowl, sho for small, chu for medium or dai for large. You pick out the ingredients and how much of each you want in the bowl and then finish up by saying how much soup you want to include.
What ingredients are in oden?
Chikuwa (served fried), or Chikuwabu, which is the sticky, mochi-like version, is a mixture of fish meat, steamed or fried into a tube. If you’re not a fan of raw fish then chikuwa is a good choice for some much needed healthy DHA and EPA.
Atsuage is just fried tofu, while ganmo is tofu crushed and mixed with vegetables and then fried.
Konyaku and shirataki start raw as yams. Some people are put off by the smell, but the benefits of eating both are worth bearing it. They’re often recommended for people on diets as they fill up the stomach with practically zero caloric intake. They clean up the intestines and stabilize digestion.
Konbu, or seaweed, is rich in vitamins and minerals like algin, calcium, iron, sodium and iodine. It helps control sugar and fat intake.
Satsumaage, along with the variant wrapped around with burdock vegetable called gobo-maki, is another mix of different kinds of fish fried and mixed with vegetables.
That funny looking bag is the kinchaku, which literally means “pouch”. Inside is hot mochi, which makes it my favorite oden especially when mixed with cheese.
Daikon, the Japanese beet in oden, is extremely soft, and after seeping up the soup it loses all bitterness. Inside the rolled cabbage is minced meat that may somewhat remind you of hamburger meat.
The oden boiled egg is no ordinary boiled egg. The whites and yolk are flavored, which makes it a favorite in the eyes of oden fans.
If you’re craving meat there is sausage, the beef sinew stick and weiner-maki, which is sausage wrapped in satsuma-age. Tsukune is minced chicken meat and tsumire is a ball made of sardine and mackerel.
One item which is eaten only as oden is the hampen. Very soft like half-melted marshmallow, it is rich in DHA, EPA, calcium and vitamin B12.
Are you tempted enough to try oden? Once you taste oden you will be back for more every winter.
Making oden by yourself is also a good idea. The soup can be bought in powder form. First warm up the soup and keep it over low heat. Gather your favorite ingredients and slice off the peels of daikon and konyaku to seep up more soup. Daikon and eggs need time to absorb the taste, so they go in first. The fried ingredients like tofu and satsumaage go in the pot early. Hampen should go in right before eating or it will bloat up. The oden should be cooked for 15 to 20 minutes.
Some convenience stores come up with interesting new ingredients. Sometimes oden also goes along with beer, which I intend to try next. I recommend that you also be adventurous and try it out!