Hanakujira is an all-society restaurant. At 5 o’clock on a Monday evening, the air still frigid with cold shock after a recent snowstorm, Osaka’s great and ordinary are packed inside (and queuing outside) to get close to the steaming vats of oden. There are families with young ones, friends, office ladies, grandparents, college kids, dating couples and the ubiquitous coterie of salarymen. When my companion and I show up there are only two seats, or stools, unoccupied, close to the door at the end of the counter — but at this oden institution, the counter is where you want to be, especially if you are a first timer.
Oden is typically classified as stew. Indeed it has many of the characteristics of the Irish stew I grew up eating; chunky root vegetables, a heartwarming broth. But that which unites them also divides: Unlike the broth in an Irish stew, the dashi here is light-colored, its flavors drawn from the sea. And food comes soaked in broth, not swimming in it as with Irish stew.
At Hanakujira the person to watch is the cook holding the tongs; like a musical conductor he sets the rhythm and the tone of the restaurant, and it is from his vat that all good things come. Oden is a year-round food, but best savored in the depths of winter. The menu is well stacked with oden staples — daikon, devil’s tongue, boiled eggs and tofu — along with baroque entries such as a UFO (really). From your counter seat you can see all the food ready to be simmered, so you can bypass the menu if you like and just point, smile and wait. It’s best to select a few items at once and pace your evening while sipping on hot sake, soaking up the winter buzz.
We started with daikon, a vegetable that holds its shape and soaks up flavors so well it might have been designed with oden in mind, and followed it with tofu. The man with the tongs slaps a side of karashi (mustard) on your plate each time. Be warned, this has a kick. Next up was a skewer of oysters, their velvety flesh perfect for soaking up the broth.
From there we went all over the menu. I could eat the shiitake mushrooms all night; again, their meaty flesh is ripe for soaking up the dashi. The negibukoro was another winner, a dainty little purse containing green onion medallions and a soupçon of ginger. I wanted to shout “Encore” to the tong-wielding conductor. Luckily for everyone, myself included, I didn’t. The UFO turned out not to be a UFO, but a Kansai favorite: a fish-paste cake. And be sure to order the hirōsu, a tofu fritter that holds so many surprises I don’t want to give any spoilers.
Hanakujira has three restaurants, all within shouting distance of each other, with the original about as big as a walk-in closet. We ate at one of the slightly bigger, newer premises. Osaka has at least two Michelin-starred oden restaurants, but I can’t imagine anywhere topping the institution that is Hanakujira for the joie de vivre of communal eating.
2-7-4, 2-8-2 and 6-20-6 Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Osaka; 06-6452-5547, 06-6453-7486, 06-6453-3758; www.hanakujira.com; open daily, dinner only; nearest stations Fukushima, Shin-Fukushima, Nakanoshima; smoking OK; dinner around ¥2,000-3,000; English menu available, no English spoken. JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.