Japanese winter stew おでん

japanese cake
Oden” おでん is classic Izakaya food. Yakitori 焼き鳥 and oden are the two main pillars of drinking food in Japan.  Although any given Izakaya may serve up oden and/or yakitori among other items,  there are drinking places specialized just in “oden” or “yakitori”.  Often I used to go to a drinking place that specialized in oden, “oden-ya” おでん屋, in Sapporo, called “Katsu-ya” かつや.  The original and name-sake proprietor has passed away, and it has moved from a quaint blind alley off the Oodouri 大通 to the basement floor of a building near Sapporo train station. One of her daughters has taken over the business. It appears that the quality of the oden and atmosphere are unchanged. It is still a very cosy welcoming place and always very crowded with salary men on the way home. I found the image of inside Katsuya on the Internet in one of the blogs (hope the author will not mind my using his picture here). Once, my wife and I visited Katsuya in this new location long time ago when we visited Sapporo. This picture really brings back memories.


“Oden” was said to be derived from “dengaku” 田楽 which I posted before. Dengaku is skewered squares of tofu, konnyaku and vegetables grilled and then eaten with miso-based sauce. Later, after the invention of soy sauce, instead of grilling, skewered items are cooked in a soy sauce flavored broth. Eventually, it lost even the skewers (some oden items, such as meatballs– two or three skewered together, still keep their skewers). There are many variations including regional differences in oden. My oden is definitely influenced by the types of oden Katsuya served. In commercial establishments like Katsuya, they have a large stainless steel vats with multiple segments so that different items will not mix and cook properly as seen above, but at home, it is most common to use a large donabe 土鍋 or earthen pot like the one I used (below). You could use any pot with a wide opening. You could place a portable cooker on the table, place the pot on the cooker and let diners serve themselves. I ususally cook oden on the stove and serve whichever items I like on a plate returning frequently for a subsequent selection of different items. One of the reasons for this is that we rarely sit at the table to eat. I cut some of the items such as eggs and “Kinchaku” (see below) using a pair of kitchen scissors to make it easier to eat with chopsticks.

I usually prepare oden in the order below at least several hours before serving.

Broth: I used a piece of kelp (2×8 inches) which was first soaked in water for 30-40 minutes or longer (4 cups or about 1 liter) or whatever amount is appropriate for your vessel. I then put the pot on a medium low flame. When it comes to a boil, I reduce the flame to very low and add dried bonito flakes or “Kezuri (katsuo)bushi” 削り(鰹)節. I use a special large teabag-like bag called “Dashi bukuro” だし袋 in which the bonito flakes are placed and the opening sealed (about 20 grams). This is just for convenience so that I do not have to filter the broth later (I usually take out the bag with bonito flakes when the vegetables are all cooked). You could just put the bonito flakes in the pot and simmer for 10-20 minutes and then strain using a fine mesh strainer. You could also set aside a portion of unseasoned broth just in case the broth get too salty.

Daikon 大根: Daikon is a must in any oden and requires some preparation. I peel the skin and cut the peeled diakon into 1 to 1.5 inch thick rounds and bevel the sharp edges, mentori 面取り. I pre-cook the daikon in a separate pot with enough water to cover the daikon and one pinch of raw rice grains for 20-30 minutes and then transfer to the oden pot.

Carrot and potato: These items may not be most common items in oden but “Katsu-ya” served them and we like them very much. Just peel and cut into the size you like (not too small) and bevel the sharp edges and place it in the oden pot.

Boiled eggs: This is also the must-have item. I just boil eggs for 10 minutes, peel and place them in the oden pot.

Konnyaku コンニャク: It does not have much taste on its own and it is mostly for texture.  most of Westerners will not appreciate this item but it is nonetheless a classic oden item. I make multiple shallow crosshatch cuts on both sides so that the broth will penetrate better. I then cut it into bite sized pieces (I cut this into a triangle which is traditional) then, par-boil it in plenty of water for one or two minutes. I drain the konnyaku and then place it in the oden pot.

Seasoning: At this point, I  season the broth. I use soy sauce, mirin, sake and salt (I use salt to prevent the broth from becoming too dark which would happen if I added too much soy sauce to get the desired saltiness especially because I usually use a reduced salt soy sauce. Alternatively, you could use “light colored” soy sauce or “usukuchi shouyu” 薄口醤油. You may even like a dark broth, in that case, just use soy sauce. I cannot give you an exact amount but I will err on the side of under seasoning and go light on mirin (Vegetables add some pleasant natural sweetness). You can always adjust the seasoning later.

Now, I put on the lid and let it simmer about 1 hour. It really should not boil at any time. After the vegetables are cooked and soft, I add more items listed below which do not require long cooking. If they were frozen, thaw first and the items which have been previously deep fried should be treated by pouring hot water over them in a colander (called “abura-nuki” 油抜き) to remove any excess oil and off flavor before adding to the pot.

Chikuwa 竹輪: Cylinder-shaped fish cake (ground white fish meat with some binder and seasoning is boiled and lightly grilled and is sold frozen here in the U.S.) with a hole in the center shaped like a bamboo. Cut diagonally in the center (in the picture above it is shown in the center of the pot above the Daikon.  In the picture below it is shown on the lower right).

Ganmodoki がんもどき: Deep fried oval patty made of tofu, egg white, black sesame seeds and other shredded vegetables (tan oval item with black specs -sesame seeds- in the picture below). Often, this is shortened as “ganmo”.

Mochi in fried tofu pouch or mochi kinchaku 餅巾着: “Kinchaku” is a transitional Japanese purse. If you stuff anything in a tofu pouch or “Abura-age” 油揚げ, it is called “Kinchaku”. Mochi 餅 is a rice cake made of pounded cooked rice.  I cut one end of a small rectangular abura-age and place mochi inside and close the pouch with tooth picks (This pouch is shown between the eggs and kelp in the picture above). This is the same type of preparation I do for the new year soup. (If you are an oden officinado, you would order this item using its short form name “mochikin”). After 5-10 minutes, the mochi will become soft and sticky but contained in the tofu pouch it is easier to eat. (They are seen in the picture above between eggs and kelp.)

Tied kelp 結び昆布: I happend to find this kelp preparation in a bag (cut in small size, tied in knots, steamed and dried) called “Musubi Konbu” or tied kelp at a Japanse grocery store. I put them in the pot after hydrating for 15 minutes. It does not taste that good and disintegrated after some time so this is the first and will be the last time I use this.

In the above picture, the dark triangles are konnyuku, tan oval ones with black specks (sesame seeds) are ganmodoki and tubes on the right are chikuwa. In the back, you see potato, kelp,  and carrot.

Just 10 minutes before serving, I add large cubes of tofu. Tofu should just be warmed through.  As seen in the above picture, I garnish the tofu with chopped chives (or scallion). the daikon here is very soft and you can cut it with just chopsticks. The yellow stuff at the far right corner is Japanse mustard which is very hot but a necessary condiment for oden.

Eggs are wonderful especially the egg yolks mixed into some of the broth and mustard. In the above picture, on the right is “mochi kinchaku”, which is cut and showing the mochi inside. Between the eggs is chikuwa and the center front is potato.

This is a perfect dish for cold winter days with sake. Warmed sake is the classic accompaniment but we like cold sake even with oden. Depending on what you like, you could use many other items in oden such as tough sinewy parts of beef, “Gyu-suji” 牛筋 cooked for long time, octopus leg “Tako” 鮹 (these are Kansai 関西 or West of Japan items), thick Japanese omelets with crab meat (“Kanitama” かに玉), many other types of fishcakes especailly white soft square ones called “Hanpen” はんぺん, and satsuma-age 薩摩揚げ. A bit unusual are “tara no shirako” タラの白子, which is the sperm sac of cod fish (It does not sound appetizing but it does taste very good), a Japanese style stuffed cabbage ロールキャベツ, a type of small conch or sea snail called “Tsubu” つぶ and so on. We really like oden but only problem for us is that there are so many goodies in one pot and it fill us up too quickly.

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