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Oden: Japanese for ‘soul food’

by Robbie Swinnerton

There’s no need to look at the changing leaves to know what season it is; just walk into your nearest 7-Eleven outlet and sniff. Those trays of oden stewing by the checkout are all you need to know that winter is on its way.

For some this is soul food, warming and comforting; for others it is the rank smell of culture shock. Whichever side of the great divide you stand, though, one thing is certain: Your local convenience store will never deliver the authentic taste of any food. For that, you need to go to the source, to a long-established specialist — and for oden in Tokyo, that means a visit to Otafuku.

Tradition runs strong in Senzoku, on the northern fringe of Asakusa, and nowhere is this more evident than at Otafuku. This family operation, currently run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Funadaiku family, has been serving its specialty here since 1916.

Unlike its neighbors, the family has lovingly rebuilt and preserved its modest timber premises. Set back from the street, the entrance is marked by large, white chochin paper lanterns, neat rows of shrubbery and a short entranceway of polished stone. Once inside, the first thing you notice is how down-home comfortable it feels, with its wooden pillars, low ceilings and walls plastered with postcards and woodblock prints evoking Taisho Era (1912-26) shitamachi. Next you spot the big copper oden pans steaming away behind the counter, and finally you realize: That is where the faint, fragrant, savory aroma reaching your nostrils is coming from.

There is a small dining room at the back with tatami mats and low tables. But the seats of choice for the predominantly local clientele (you are way off the tourist trail here) are the low-slung chairs at the counter, from where they observe the proceedings, chat with the two Funadaiku brothers, and order their meals, one piece at a time, much as you would at a sushi shop.

Not surprisingly, Otafuku prepares its oden in the robust Kanto style, seasoned with dark shoyu (soy sauce). The ingredients — predominantly of seafood, tofu or vegetable origin — are gently simmered for a couple of hours until they are infused with the rich, savory essence of that broth. What is less usual is the wide variety of different items to choose from. Scan the illustrated menu, written in perfect English, and you will see it offers almost 50 different kinds.

All the usual suspects are present and correct: whole, hard-boiled eggs; slabs of firm tofu; thick rounds of daikon radish; satsuma-age (deep-fried fish paste); and dark, rubbery konnyaku (devil’s tongue root jelly), all texture and minimal flavor. There are more exotic offerings too: uzura no tamago (skewered quail eggs); iidako (miniature octopuses); and even whale tongue and blubber.

Our perennial favorites are the tsumire, flavorful balls of ground sardine, and the kyabetsu maki, cabbage leaf stuffed with finely ground beef. Both of these have plenty of inherent flavor that does not get lost in the long simmering process. Everything does start to taste a bit repetitive after a while; that is why each serving comes with a powerful dab of fiery yellow mustard to cauterize any staleness from your palate and sinuses.

Oden is by definition snacking food, in classic izakaya style. It’s there to accompany the sake — and here you won’t go wrong with the resinous taruzake, sake poured straight from the wooden cask on the counter. Chilled, it is served in wooden masu box cups, with a little salt on the side; to appreciate its full perfume, it is better warmed (ask for okan).

Even though Otafuku complements its oden with a full range of other dishes, from sashimi and tempura through to onigiri rice balls and dessert, it is the atmosphere rather than the provender that makes it worth the pilgrimage. To find traditional architecture of this kind still intact is a rare treat; to be welcomed and served with such care and consideration is even more special.

Otafuku, 1-6-2 Senzoku, Taito-ku; tel. (03) 3871-2521. Open 5-11 p.m. (Sunday and holidays 4-10 p.m.), closed Sunday (except before Monday national holidays). Nearest stations: Iriya (Hibiya Line); Tawaramachi (Ginza Line). Most credit cards accepted. English menu; little English spoken. Reservations recommended, especially on Saturdays.

Konakara, on the other hand, is an odenya of a far subtler hue. It may sit in the shadow of Kanda Myojin, one of the three major shrines of old Edo, but it subscribes firmly to the idea that only when oden is prepared in the Kansai style can it be truly delicious.

The difference is remarkable. Where the oden at Otafuku is a hearty, long-simmered stew, Konakara produces the Japanese equivalent of a delicate pot-au-feu. The broth is clear, almost transparent.

Derived from plenty of katsuo (bonito) flakes and shiitake mushroom, it has an underlying richness of flavor that draws out the inherent flavor of the individual ingredients and sets the palate singing.

Hidden away down a side street that seems impossibly quiet for such a central location, you will see the welcoming red glow of Konakara’s chochin lantern. The building itself is new, but designed in traditional style. Open the wooden door and remove your shoes before being shown to your cushion at a counter that runs three sides of an open kitchen.

It’s a tiny dining area, just big enough for about 20 people wedged in tight, elbow to elbow. The decor is simple: rough plastered walls and wooden timbers, with a large tansu sideboard against the back wall. Inevitably, the center of attention is the large oden pot, a handsome pan in gleaming copper, hammered into the shape of a gourd.

News photo The oden at Konakara is more refined, prepared in the Kansai style.
News photo

As an otoshi starter to go with your first beer or sake, you will be served a couple of mouthfuls of vegetables — perhaps some ohitashi greens, or some creamed squash with crunchy diced cucumber — along with a steaming-hot mini-chawan mushi egg custard. Delicate but invigorating, this serves to stimulate the appetite as you ponder the menu.

The blackboard on the wall (in Japanese only) details an excellent choice of seasonal appetizers. There may be oysters, served either raw with a citrus-flavored ponzu sauce or briefly dipped into the oden broth. The rolls of fresh Kyoto yuba (creamy soymilk skin) are delectable, as is the deep-fried eggplant (ask for nasu no agedashi). We haven’t yet tried the lightly grilled slices of piquant daikon (karami-daikon no shioyaki), but we can testify that the tamago-yaki omelet is first rate.

So too is the oden. Not only is it prepared with delicacy, there are also many unusual and inventive combinations. Here are some of our favorites: kyo-ganmo — small golden balls of deep-fried tofu mashed with flecks of carrot and seaweed, with a delicate quail’s egg at their center; daikon — always the benchmark of any oden shop, here the vegetable retains its natural flavor, texture and color, and is among the best you will find; iwashi tsumire — small, dark, intensely flavored balls of minced sardine; tori supaisu tsukune — balls of ground chicken meat, slightly crunchy in texture like the tsukune served at yakitori shops, but here spiked with piquant black pepper; satsukuri-san — sweet-potato puree formed into a soft disk shape, with a piece of chestnut in the center; and kabomaru-san — an excellent autumn special, prepared from pureed kabocha pumpkin studded with raisins to give an extra dimension of natural sweetness.

Although each serving is accompanied by the standard dash of karashi mustard, we find we leave it untouched, as we don’t want to override the natural flavors of the oden.

To close the meal, be sure to order a serving of the special udon noodles (¥1,000 or ¥600). You will be given a small pestle and mortar in which you grind white sesame seeds to add to the dipping sauce. It’s a tasty and satisfying way to end the evening without making you feel too full.

In fact, though, you are not likely to spend an entire evening here. Konakara has become so popular — deservedly — that it imposes a time limit and will usually turf you out (ever so politely) after two hours, or even less if you have arrived without a prior reservation.

So this is not the place to come if you want to linger; if you want a table of your own, rather than having everyone looking at you; if you are broad of beam and cannot wedge yourself into a tight space; and if you are not with someone who speaks and reads Japanese. Instead, it would be far better to explore Konakara’s more central branch on the 5th floor of the Shin-Marunouchi Building, in front of Tokyo Station; or its new restaurant in Aoyama, which opens Nov. 9.

Konakara, 1-9-6 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 3816-0997; www.konakara.com. Open 6-10 p.m. (last order), closed Sundays and holidays. Nearest stations: Ochanomizu (JR and Marunouchi lines); Shin-Ochanomizu (Chiyoda Line). Visa and MasterCard accepted. Japanese menu; no English spoken. Reservations essential.