A hodgepodge that really hits the spot

by Rick Lapointe

It’s a cold evening and the salarymen are stopping off on their home from a long day of work at open-air stalls to down a cup or two of warm sake and a few pieces of oden — slowly simmered daikon, hard-boiled eggs and tofu, among other things.

It’s a nice image, but I wouldn’t be surprised if as many salarymen today get their oden from the convenience stores that dot the country as stop in and eat the dish at idyllic little street vendors.

Oden, which Richard Hosking, in “A Dictionary of Japanese Food,” calls “hodgepodge,” gets its name from nikomi dengaku, the Edo Period term for things, especially tofu, that were skewered (dengaku) and then slowly simmered (nikomu). Nikomi dengaku was eventually shortened to oden. In Osaka, the native-Tokyo oden was initially called Kanto-daki, pronounced not Kanto-ni — with a long “o” and the reading “ni” for simmer — but rather with a short “o” on Kanto — Osaka dialect — and the forced reading of “ni” as taki, which was the preferred word among locals for “simmer.” Today, however, even in the Kansai region, the word most often heard and seen on menus is oden.

Interestingly, there are now stores in Tokyo — the Kanto region — that specialize in Kanto-daki. They use the term to signify that, while located in Kanto, where oden originated, they have “re-imported” the name and style of seasoning used in western Japan.

Oden stalls revolve around a large vat of bubbling dashi, filled to the brim with dozens of different vegetables, tofu and fried fish pastes often divided by wooden planks to facilitate ordering and serving. Customers huddle up close to the simmering centerpiece and make their selections by pointing (usually five or six items). The selections and a small amount of stock are then ladled into a square Styrofoam bowl and handed over. Unless otherwise stipulated, a generous portion of hot yellow mustard is dabbed on the side of the bowl. Some people thin the mustard with the stock and then dip, while others go for the full-strength spice.

While never considered a full meal when eaten out, oden can be enjoyed almost anytime, anywhere. After a movie, on the way home from work or for no other reason than to eat something warm on a chilly day, duck your head into a dimly lit stall and order the daikon, swelled with sweetness after soaking up the soup’s flavor for hours upon hours.

Though well-known as a street food, oden is also made by many folks at home. Add rice, pickles and a green vegetable, and you have turned the salaryman’s snack into a meal. It’s not that difficult to make. The simmering stock is generally between 16 and 18 parts chicken stock to 1 part each of sake, mirin and usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce), with a pinch of sugar and salt added.

Once the soup is made, all the other ingredients are thrown in and slowly bubbled, for hours sometimes, until finally partaken with hot mustard. Oden relies heavily on ingredients such as chikuwa (a cake of fish paste) that are not made at home, but rather purchased. There are good commercially available versions of these items — and mass-produced inferior-quality ones as well. Take the time to choose good food materials; it’s the difference between getting your oden at the outdoor yatai stall as against the cold conbini counter.

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Oden soup

6 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup mirin
1/3 cup usukuchi shoyu
1/3 cup sake
1 tablespoon sugar
2/3 teaspoon salt

1) For chicken stock, blanch the bones of one chicken carcass in boiling water and drain. Rinse the bones and return to the stockpot with one carrot, one onion and 5 cm of fresh ginger, all cut into small pieces. Cover with cold water and bring quickly to a boil, skimming off the scum and fat as it rises to the top. At the boil, reduce heat, and simmer for one hour. Strain and measure 6 cups out for the recipe. Chill and refrigerate unused portion.

2) In a large pot, combine measured chicken stock and all of the seasonings. Add the items for simmering and let cook slowly for at least one hour. Adjust the stock, adding water or leftover stock and seasonings as needed. When adding a second round of ingredients to the soup, beef it up with about half as much seasoning as originally added.

Ingredients for simmering

You can add anything you’d like — many families have their own favorites — but following are the most well-known ingredients. Pick and choose among them, and make the oden your own.

Chikuwa — Chikuwa comes in various shapes and sizes, and may be added directly to the pot as is.

Daikon — Daikon should be peeled, sliced into thick rings and par-cooked before being added.

Goboten — Goboten, fried burdock root (gobo) and fish paste, can be added directly to the pot.

Gyu suji — Suji usually refers to the tendon of beef. It is available at the meat counter, sometimes already on the skewer. It must be simmered separately until tender. When adding the gyu suji to the soup, you may also add the stock for flavor (just be sure to skim the scum off the top during the simmering process).

Hanpen — Hanpen, a fried cake of fish paste and a wild potato-like tuber, should be cut in half or in smaller portions before being added to the soup.

Hard-boiled egg — Eggs should be boiled and peeled before being added.

Konbu — Dried konbu may be added directly to the soup, but it takes at least an hour for it to become soft enough.

Konnyaku — Konnyaku is a gelatinous, basically flavorless cake that is very delicious once it has simmered for a while. Before adding to the soup, slice into 5-cm pieces across the width of the cake, make a slice in the center of each piece and fold it back on itself for an interesting shape.

Potato — Potatoes should be added after being peeled, halved and par-cooked.

Shiitake — Remove stem and brush off any dirt before adding to the soup.

Takenoko — Bamboo shoots are available fresh in the spring, but good canned, unflavored shoots may be rinsed and added right to the pot. Fresh shoots must be boiled until tender before using.

Tofu — Cut into manageable pieces and add directly to the pot.

Octopus and chicken — In Kansai, we add par-cooked octopus and de-boned chicken to our oden.

If traditional oden isn’t your cup of tea, or just for a little variety, try a soup that is different. In Nagoya, oden is often made with dark hatcho miso, the rich, almost cheeselike soybean paste for which the region is famous. Some might like to spike their soup with a little curry or heat it up with kimchi — both of which are mellowed nicely with a little sweet, white miso paste.

Combining another winter favorite, kasu jiru (soup made with the lees of sake), and simmered oden is another option. I have even run across a Western (as in Occidental) style oden made with a beef broth and stocked with carrots, leeks and potatoes that was almost like a home version of the classic French dish pot-au-feu.

A reader posted the question of whether there was an easier way to make the kawatare soup from last week’s column. There is.

If you look at the ratio of dashi/chicken stock to seasonings and soy milk (tonyu), you will see the soup is basically 10 parts stock (dashi and/or chicken), 1 part usukuchi shoyu, 1 part mirin and 5 parts soy milk. The soup may be made with 10 parts stock in any combination (8 chicken, 2 dashi, or 10 chicken or 10 dashi, etc).

There are fairly good commercially available chicken stocks that you may use, but you must use sodium-free stock or the seasoning will be too strong. I don’t ever recommend using commercially made dashi, liquid or powder; so if you must buy your soup, stick to chicken or a good salt-free vegetable stock.