As winter gusts whip through many parts of their island country, Japanese seek refuge in foods for warmth, comfort, and good company. Oden ( pronounced oh-den ) is the ultimate comfort food, a slow food, served hot, to linger onto one’s tummy, palate, and heart.
Oden is an assortment of slow simmered foods including Surimi fishcake varieties, bopping in hot Dashi broth, and served HOT by the piece, in small bowls with a smear of hot mustard. It’s almost always accompanied by warmed sake that’s sure to drum up a good conversation and laughter. Surimi fishcakes may not sound appealing to all American diners, but the oden of today is quite modern, featuring meaty and vegetable ingredients.
Decades ago, pop-up pushcart oden stations would line under noisy elevated train tracks and in narrow back alleyways. A sole proprietor-chef-bartender-server would provide the warm oasis to those seeking shelter from the cold. These days, small eateries and modern oden-bars place large steaming oden warmers on the service counter to display the day’s offering. With the first order of warm Sake and a few pieces of oden, the Japanese unwind with this ultimate wintertime, after-work comfort food.
THE MAKING OF ODEN
DASHI (What is Dashi?)
Start with quality Dashi, made with Kombu and Hanakatuso - no shortcuts here, so do not use instant Dashi. The key is to use quality ingredients.
Oden Dashi Base: make 2 quarts Kombu and Hanakatsuo Dashi, add 1 cup Sake, 1/3 cup Mirin. Select one of the following to complete. Heat Dashi to dissipate alcohol.
While Surimi fishcakes are traditionally the main featured ingredient, modern style pieces are joining the repertoire that makes oden contemporary and fun. Carefully prepping the pieces before simmering in Dashi is key.
Surimi Fishcake (fried): Gobo Ten, Satsuma Age, Age Ball, Koban Age.
Surimi Fishcake (non-fried): Yasai Ten, Kamaboko, Tsumire, Chikuwa, Naruto, Hampen
Tofu: Yaki Tofu, Ganmodoki, Atsuage
Konnyaku: Cut into triangles, massage with salt, blanch in salted water for few minutes
Chicken Tsukune: mix ground chicken, egg, white sesame seeds, black pepper, Katakuriko. Shape into small balls, place in boiling water seasoned with a bit of Shoyu until they float, skewer.
Gyusuji Beef Tendons: Boil 2 hours untill tender in water and sake. Simmer 1 hour in water with Shoyu and Mirin. Thread onto skewer.
Arabiki Pork Sausage: Stuff in chikuwa, parboil.
Stuffed Cabbage: Mix lean ground beef and pork, salt, pepper. Wrap in cabbage leaves, secure with Kampyo thread.
Tako legs: Boil in Dashi seasoned Shoyu and Mirin until tender, skewer.
Eggs: Hard boil, peel.
Daikon: Peel,cut into thick rounds, parboil in water with teaspoon of raw rice.
Carrots: Peel, cut into large logs.
Onions: Use whole, peel.
Tomatoes: Use whole, unpeeled. Remove stem, score top with an “X”, place into Ooden pot. Simmer 10 minutes separately from the oden. Serve with fresh dashi, top with parmesan cheese.
Potatoes: Peel, boil and soak in cold water.
Satoimo: Peel, massage with salt, rinse off slippery film with water. Simmer in Dashi seasoned with Shoyu, Mirin and sugar.
Kombu Knots: Soften Kombu in water, tie into knot.
Mochi Kinchaku: Place small cube Mochi in Age pocket. Secure opening with Kampyo thread. Cook only for 6 minutes.
Start oden preparation one day in advance, slow simmering, then cooling completely to let flavors penetrate into the ingredients.
Prepare special dashi sauces, for serving, separate from cooking, so that each pieces has its own unique flavor.
ODEN & WARM SAKE
Typically, served alongside oden is warmed Sake: Tokubetsu Junmai, Junmai, Honjozo. These less polished sake are not “inferior”, rather, hold the very elements which suit being warmed, especially the Yamahai and Kimoto brews. Through heating, amino and lactic acids open to release mellow flavors that renders a comforting drink.
At a traditional oden bar, Sake is poured into Sake Tampo or Chirori, open aluminum or stainless flasks which are immersed into a bath of hot water for a few minutes. Enhance the Sake drinking experience by serving at various temperatures, but never heat to over 131 degrees F.