Oden is a type of Japanese stew with traditional ingredients such as daikon radish, chikuwa, hanpen, tsumire, ganmodoki, konnyaku, etc. (I’ll explain what all of these ingredients are in a minute.) It is a very important soul food in Japan typically eaten in the wintertime.
In late August or early September, Japanese “konbini” (convenience stores) start selling oden, and that is when people in Japan feel that the summer is over, and it is time to get ready for the cold season. Around the same time, you will start seeing pop-up oden stands close to train stations. They usually offer sake to go with oden, providing perfect spots for a casual bite while bar hopping.
Oden is also a popular dish to cook at home, and each region has its own distinct flavor. For example, Kansai (western) style soup base is lighter in color, with more focus on kombu dashi, whereas Kanto (eastern) style will look darker in color because it contains more soy sauce.
The origin of oden
The oldest record of oden appears in the 14th century. It was originally a tofu dish called dengaku — a piece of grilled tofu on a stick like modern-day yakitori. When Japan entered the Edo period (1603-1868), this dengaku transformed into a simmered dish with more varied ingredients, which was easier to cook in large volumes and serve to more people in a fast-food manner. This is very close to the oden of today. (Note that dengaku still exists in its original form as well.)
How to make oden (4 servings)
Let’s learn how to make this heartwarming and traditional Japanese stew. First, we’ll begin with the main ingredients.
Preparing classic oden ingredients
½ daikon radish
1 package of chikuwa
1 package of hanpen
1 package of tsumire
1 package of ganmodoki
1 package of konnyaku
1 package of age (soybean curd, pronounced “ah-geh”)
4 small mochi
4 boiled eggs
This is probably one of the most essential ingredients for oden. Peel the skin and cut into even slabs about 1 inch in thickness. Cut a cross into each radish like in the photo so the radish can absorb dashi efficiently.
This is a tube-shaped fish cake made mainly from ingredients such as fish, salt, sugar, starch and egg white. Cut diagonally in half or in thirds.
This is another category of fish cake usually made with white fish (suketo cod, a.k.a. Alaska pollock) and yam potatoes. It is fluffy and airy when uncooked. Cut in half or in desired size.
This is a fish paste product with burdock root in the center, usually seasoned with sweet flavor. Cut if necessary.
This is a type of fish paste dumpling. There are many varieties of ready-to-use products sold in Japanese supermarkets. You can also make them from scratch; the most common fish to use are sardines, yellowtail, Pacific saury or mackerel.
This is a round, deep-fried tofu dumpling. It usually contains vegetables such as carrots, lotus roots, burdock and hijiki (a type of seaweed). This is another essential ingredient for oden as it absorbs soup like a sponge, providing a rich and juicy texture. No preparation is necessary if you buy a ready-to-use product.
This is a type of yam cake product made from the rhizome of the konjac plant. It has a hard, jelly-like texture. There are different shapes and colors of konnyaku; the most common is gray (due to the addition of seaweed) and rectangular. You can also find white, noodle-shaped ones, commonly known as shirataki.
Cut the konnyaku into your desired size. In a pot with boiling water, add 1 tablespoon sake and cook for 2-3 minutes in order to get rid of its unique smell. This is a very important step because you don’t want the konnyaku to interfere with the delicate aroma of dashi soup stock.
Age and mochi (kinchaku)
“Kinchaku” means a traditional Japanese small bag or pouch. In oden jargon, it means stuffed bean curd. The popular type is mochi-stuffed kinchaku. You can cut off the edge of the bean curd and place small mochi inside and close it with a string or a wooden toothpick.
Oden ingredients can be very flexible, so you can add your favorite items as well. For example, in contemporary style oden, you will find chicken wings, sausage and tomato.
Other ingredients you’ll need
30 grams katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
10 grams kombu
6 cups water
50 milliliters mirin
30 milliliters soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
In a pot or “nabe” (hot pot), put katsuobushi, kombu and water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes and take them out (you can also filter the stock for a clearer soup stock).
In the same pot, add mirin, soy sauce and sugar. Simmer over medium heat for 3 minutes.
Add all the prepared ingredients and simmer over low heat for 2 hours with the lid on. Make sure to watch the liquid level. Add water if necessary.
Turn off the heat and let it sit on the stove for a couple of hours and reheat before you are ready to eat.
Serve with Japanese mustard (“karashi”).
Recommended sake pairing for oden
Gozenshu “Bodaimoto” Nigori
Based in Okayama prefecture, Tsuji Honten has been a pioneer of blending old-world and modern cultures. This sake involves a very rare technique called “bodai-moto,” which involves water that has been used to soak uncooked rice for a number of days. This gives sake a unique, rustic quality and complexity. Very balanced with a crisp and clean finish, Gozenshu “Bodaimoto” Nigori pairs well with fish cakes soaked in dashi soup stock.
Hanagaki is one of the flagship sake of Nanbu Brewing Company, headquartered in Fukui prefecture. The round and soft steamed rice aroma is followed by tropical fruits such as papaya, banana and a hint of nuttiness. This is a complex sake packed with umami. This sake pairs well with dishes that have depth, and goes perfectly with katsuo and kombu dashi flavors.