April in Japan isn’t cruel so much as capricious. It brings unexpected chills and sudden rain as readily as it does blossom and sunshine. There’s still plenty of need for warming, restorative fare — and nothing fits that description better than oden.
Even at their simplest, there is something intensely comforting about these stew pots of vegetables, tofu, seafood and other morsels that are slowly simmered in rich, soy-based broth until saturated with umami. Done well, they become habit-forming.
That’s certainly the case with the fare served at Otafuku. The recipe at this classic oden house has barely changed in a century and, until last autumn, nor had the atmospheric, low-rise wooden building in which the dish had been served for so long.
Sadly for traditionalists, time and redevelopment have caught up with Otafuku’s much-loved, rambling premises. The beams and roofs were still strong, but the foundations were sagging and the ancient gas pipes underneath too dangerous. Go to the old address now and all you’ll find is a building site.
But this doesn’t spell the end of Otafuku, quite the opposite, in fact. Since October and for the next couple of years, it has taken over a temporary restaurant space on the third floor of a building that looks out onto the Sumida River and is much more convenient to the tourist heart of Asakusa.
It’s not the same, of course. It doesn’t have the weathered patina and somber charm, the irregular paving stones and cluttered, timber-clad interior. But the face you see behind the counter is a constant — that of Sakae Funadaiku, the fifth generation of his family to run this business.
He says the original counters and fixtures have been put into storage and will be used after he moves back to the original plot in Senzoku, just to the north of Asakusa. And, crucially, he has brought with him the handsome copper pans in which he keeps the oden piping hot.
Despite their 100-year-old unbroken lineage in Asakusa, Funadaiku’s forbears hailed from Osaka and their oden recipe follows the lighter Kansai style. It is cooked in a fragrant broth made from katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and konbu seaweed, and seasoned with usukuchi shoyu, the amber-colored soy sauce of western Japan.
Everyone has their favorite tidbits: ganmodoki (deep-fried balls of mashed tofu and vegetables) and rolls of yuba (soymilk skin), chunky rounds of daikon root or carrot, skewers of quail eggs, rolled cabbage, octopus or even fresh spring bamboo shoots. Just sing out your order for three or four things at a time and Funadaiku will scoop them out and serve them with a generous dab of eye-watering yellow mustard. With a flask of warmed sake to sip on, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Two positives have emerged from the enforced move. Besides the faithful regulars who are already fans, a new and younger clientele is discovering that it’s not just the setting but the food that makes Otafuku special. They’re also finding there’s a lot more to eat than just oden: side dishes of fish, meat and even whale are on the menu.
Funadaiku estimates he will move Otafuku back to its old address in November 2019. He and his family have their eyes firmly set on being in business for a second century and more.
Set menu ¥5,400; also a la carte. English menu; a little English spoken.
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