Season's Eatings
The truth behind oden

Illusttrations by Yukiko Leitch

Of all Japan's culinary oddities, oden rides high in the least-appetizing-national-dish rankings. To most foreigners it means a collection of smelly, lukewarm, soft, brown objects soaking in front of the cashier in your local convenience store. But to most Japanese, oden is a hearty staple of fish paste, tofu and vegetables all thrown together into a huge pot brimming with kelp stock. These days, far from being the preserve of night stalls and conbini, many restaurants are specializing in this newly trendy winter treat (see the Restaurant's section mini-review). But what exactly is all that squidgy, soggy stuff? Here's a beginners' guide to the delights of the oden pot. Maki Nibayashi


Egg. Hard boiled.


Octopus leg on a stick.

Shirataki means “white waterfall” because, apparently, that’s what it looks like. This is the “noodley” Tokyo variety of konnyaku, unlike its “square” Kansai cousin.

konnyaku Konnyaku
Translated sometimes as “elephant’s foot” or “devil’s tongue,” konnyaku is a gelatinous paste made from potato root and formed into bricks; it’s 97% water and has zero calories-one of the best things to eat when you’re on a diet.

These little brown balls are tofu mixed with crushed yamaimo and chopped vegetables, and usually deep-fried. Most oden places make their own mixture so expect a difference depending on the stall or restaurant.

First introduced to the oden pot by a famous writer in the Meiji period, furofuki daikon (well boiled radish, usually eaten with miso) is a relatively new member of the oden family. It is, however, one of the most popular ingredients because it absorbs the soup and adds a certain extraordinary flavor. The best way to see if the oden stock matches your taste is to try the daikon first; if you like it, sit down, order some sake and feast on.

Also called kinchaku, these fried tofu pouches stuffed with mochi or vegetables were ingeniously created as a substitute for fish in places where there were no fish to be caught. The stuffing varies from region to region.

Traditionally, satoimo (taro) was used in oden. After the war Japan found itself with almost no food, so the Americans distributed potatoes (jyagaimo) and the Japanese added them to the oden broth where they have been ever since.

This dish was the brainwave of a chef named Hanpei (hence the name) in the Edo period and is fish paste mixed with yamaimo (mountain potato). It’s got a really unique texture and is another one that absorbs the soup to make it tasty (without the soup it’s really bland). Some regions mix in iwashi (sardines), so don’t worry if it looks gray.

This funny-looking concoction is flour and salt molded into a chikuwa-like tube, although, to be honest, it doesn’t taste of much. It’s mostly an East Japan thing and Kansai people have never heard of it.

Fish, egg, flour and salt, all made into a paste and rounded into balls.

Deep-fried tofu cut into blocks or triangles.
Tofu has been in the oden family since the very beginning making it a bona-fide member. Yakidofu (grilled tofu) is usually used so that it doesn’t fall apart in the stew.

Also called agekamaboko outside of Tokyo, this is moulded, deep fried, fish paste loaf.
This brown tube is made from fish paste, pasted onto a stick and grilled over a fire. (One of my favorites.)
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