Oden （御田・おでん） is to the Japanese what fried chicken is to Southerners, fish and chips is to Brits, and a good ol’ meat pie is to Aussies – soul food. Oden is a hotpot dish, where all the ingredients are thrown together into a pot of simmering broth. This is a type of nabemono (鍋物・なべもの hot-pot dishes). Once the ingredients have been cooked, they sit in the
hot broth until someone becomes hungry. It is often served with karashi （からし）mustard as a condiment. It is no surprise then that oden is a winter comfort food. When winter comes around, almost every konbini (コンビニ convenience store) will have a sectioned tray of oden next to the register for customers to pick and buy. The Japanese consider this fast food.
Oden is also traditionally a snacking food, made to accompany sake at izakayas (居酒屋・いざかや a casual drinking establishment that serves food to accompany the alcohol). Eating oden at your local izakaya is usually a loud and cheerful affair. While the image of a hotpot might not seem like a convenient snack, the ingredients that make up oden are usually served by the piece, rather than by the bowl. Additionally, if the ingredients are skewered (as per Shizuoka-style oden), then it can be easily eaten with one hand (leaving the other free to nurse (or skull) a drink).
History of Oden and its Kanji
Oden has the honour of being one of the oldest fast foods in Japanese history. The predecessor of oden was a dish called toufu-dengaku （豆腐田楽・とうふでんがく）, first appearing in the Heian period (794-1185 AD). Pieces of tofu were cut into rectangles, threaded into bamboo skewers, sprinkled in salt, and then grilled over charcoal. This dish was given the name dengaku （田楽・でんがく） because the white tofu and bamboo skewers reminded people of the dengaku-houshi （田楽法師・でんがくほうし）who performed the dengaku, a ritual dance associated with planting and harvesting. The dengaku-houshi would wear white hakama pants and dance on bamboo stilts. The origins of oden being a winter comfort food also beings here. Toufu-dengaku was especially popular in the winter because tofu retains its heat when cooked.
Later on, in the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD), the tofu was coated with a miso paste. Other ingredients were given the same treatment as well, including daikon （大根・だいこん）and konnyaku （蒟蒻・こんにゃく）. The dish was now called miso-dengaku （味噌田楽・みそでんがく）.
It was during the late Edo period (1603-1868 AD) that miso-dengaku changed into the oden we know today. Around the 18th century, casual eateries in Edo (present-day Tokyo) started to serve rice and vegetables with miso-dengaku as a side. After some time, these establishments started to put all the ingredients into one pot. This would expedite service, particularly for roadside eateries, as the ingredients would keep hot in the pot until ready to be served. This is how oden developed its reputation for being a casual and quick snack. The popularity of oden spread all across Japan, with each region developing its own speciality. In the 1940s more and more people began to cook oden at home, and it became beloved as a dish you could put anything into.
The etymology of oden is directly related to its history. Although oden is usually written in hiragana, the kanji characters for oden comprises of:
- お（御）：the honorific character
- でん （田）：rice field
The kanji characters for dengaku comprises of:
- でん （田）：rice field
- がく （楽）：music; comfort; ease
So the kanji for oden is the honorific お plus the first character of dengaku. Perhaps oden was known as o-dengaku at one point; but considering how the Japanese love shortening words, it probably didn’t last long.
Styles of Oden
The beauty about oden is that you can put whatever you like into it – there are no rules as long as you have a pot of simmering broth and your favourite ingredients. There are, however, regional variations that are associated with a particular broth and particular ingredients, depending on what is available and favoured in a region.
Seafood is a prominent feature in Hokkaido-style oden, whether it is fresh, dried or processed. In Muroran, a port city in southern Hokkaido, the oden displays scallops and whelk.
Due to the harsh winters in this region, the locals add ginger to a miso-based broth for their version of oden, called shouga-miso oden （生姜味噌御田・しょうがみそおでん）. The local condiment is a thick, caramel-coloured miso sauce mixed with grated ginger that is liberally poured onto the cooked ingredients.
Kanto-style oden is full-bodied and punchy. The broth is a bonito-based dashi that is seasoned with dark shouyu (醤油・しょうゆ soy sauce). Ingredients are predominately of seafood, tofu and vegetable origins. Popular ingredients include: chikuwa （竹輪・ちくわ）, white hanpen （半片・はんぺん）, satsuma-age （薩摩揚げ・さつまあげ a fried fish cake from Kagoshima） and ikamaki （烏賊巻・いかまき squid rolled in fish paste）.
The oden in Shizuoka has an extremely dark and rich broth. This results from the use of chicken or beef bones, and copious amounts of dark shouyu. The defining characteristic about Shizuoka-style oden is that all the ingredients are skewered before being added to the pot, truly making this fast finger food. Classic ingredients are: beef tendon and black hanpen. While karashi mustard is still present, other common condiments are miso, ao-nori (青海苔・あおのり a green seaweed powder), and fine kezuribushi (bonito flakes).
Nagoya-style oden has a miso-based broth. While any miso can be used, hacchou miso （八丁味噌・はっちょうみそ）is particularly common since it is a famous Nagoya product. Popular ingredients include: beef tendons and taro.
Kansai-style oden is lighter than its Kanto counterpart. The broth tends to be a kombu-based dashi that is seasoned with light shouyu. The amount of shouyu used is less than for Kanto-style oden. Beef tendon is a popular ingredient.
The one ingredient that would make oden reminiscent of Okinawa? Pork, of course! The broth is pork based, and don’t be surprised if you fish out some pig trotters along side your Spam and seasonal vegetables.
The ingredients added into oden are called tanemono （種物・たねもの 種＝ingredient 物＝thing） or odentane （御田種・おでんたね lit. oden ingredients). While you can put whatever you’d like into oden, there are certain ingredients that are very common and help make the essence of oden.
- Daikon （大根）: Japanese raddish
- Konnyaku （蒟蒻）: konjac
- Yude-tamago （ゆで卵）: hard-boiled eggs
- A variety of tofu:
- Gandomaki （がんど巻）: fried tofu and vegetable patties
- Atsuage （厚揚げ）: deep fried tofu
- Kinchaku （巾着）: lit. cloth purse; pouches of fried tofu with mochi in the centre
- Nerimono （練り物）: a term that encompasses fish-paste products; products made from minced and pressed meat. Oden usually features a few different kinds and many people don’t consider it oden if these are omitted.
- Chikuwa （竹輪）: ground fish shaped to look like tubes of bamboo; it has a hole in the middle.
- Hanpen （半片）: triangles of flavoured ground fish pounded into a cake. It can be white or black, depending on the fish and other ingredients used.
- Suji （すじ）: white fish balls with cartilage
- Kanikama （カニ蒲）: imitation crab sticks
Of course nowadays people add all sorts of colourful meats and vegetables into their oden. You might see things like offal, chicken drumsticks, cabbage, broccoli, and capsicum. The same goes for the broth: tomato, curry, herbal…the list stretches as far as one’s imagination and willingness to experiment. There’s even chilled oden for those who have a craving during summertime.
Where to Eat Oden
It’s not hard to spot a shop or stall that specialises in oden, especially in winter. Oden-ya (御田屋・おでんや shops or stalls that sell oden) have the word oden prominently written in hiragana on fabric flaps (with one hiragana character per flap) that hang down from the awnings; or written on bright red-orange lanterns. Or you might hear the bubbling pot; or rather, the raucousness of the patrons dining within.
During wintertime you can stop by almost any konbini and find a large bain of oden simmering away next to the register. All you have to do is grab a disposable bowl, pick the ingredients you want (pictures and prices will usually be displayed right underneath the oden), put as much stock in as you’d like, and pay at the register. The very same konbini may also sell canned oden and oden packs (which is a pack of assorted tanemono and soup stock) so you can make it at home. General supermarkets will definitely have these stocked.
All around Japan you will find renowned oden restaurants and areas. In Tokyo, the Senzoku area in north Asakusa is well known as an oden paradise. One restaurant in particular comes with great acclaim: Otafuku. Otafuku is a family run business, and has been operating since 1961. They broth has not changed since 1945 – that’s over 70 years! They hold the title of the oldest oden broth. Well-known oden-yas usually have an aged broth (10 years+ isn’t uncommon); and it is well worth the visit since an aged broth has a distinctive edge that cannot be replicated at home.
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