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Oden—Japan’s Quintessential Winter Comfort Food

As soon as the bite of autumn chill hits the air, Japanese people know that something else is sure to follow: the steamy, fragrant, popular cooked dish called oden, a simmering hot broth stocked with a variety of mouthwatering morsels all vying for attention.

As ubiquitous in Japan as chicken noodle soup is in the U.S., the dish known as oden is comfort food, warming you up when the cold sets in, providing nourishment to fight off the colds and flus of the season, and feeding the soul against the long dark days of winter.

Oden is seldom the same across Japan except at certain convenience store chains. In Tokyo, for example, you’re likely to find chikuwabu, a chewy tube-shaped dumpling made from gluten. In Osaka, you may see octopus and beef tendon, while in Okinawa you can delight your taste buds with a helping of pig’s trotters. Oden is usually priced per piece, with customers choosing their favorite ingredients to be pulled from the pot and served in the local style. The soup, too, varies widely from shop to shop and region to region.

Venturing out to try a few regional versions of oden reveals these differences. The first stop, Shizuoka City, loves the dish so much that it has not one but two alleys—Aoba Oden Gai and Aoba Yokocho—dedicated to shops serving oden. Before 1968 when the first of these alleys developed, oden was sold from yatai (mobile food stalls) lining the roads leading to city hall and its environs. Before that, locals say, oden got its start in the dagashiya (old-fashioned candy shops run almost entirely by older women) that dotted the town.

“When I was a kid, one piece cost five or ten yen,” says Kazuyo Nakata, owner of a shop called Nagoya in Aoba Oden Gai. The grannies would keep a pot going on the counter of their dagashiya, the soup as black as squid’s ink, and sell oden alongside the snacks and sweets to a mostly underage clientele. “In those days,” he adds, “we didn’t use daikon.”

Instead, the local specialty is kurohanpen, a fluffy fish cake made from whole sardines and mountain yams.

The broth in Shizuoka is characterized by its dark, almost black color. Made from soy sauce and beef stock, it has a strong, rich, salty flavor. The ingredients are varied and mostly served on skewers, with beef skewers and kurohanpen being two of the local favorites. Finally, the selected items are doused in dashiko, a sprinkled topping made from mackerel and sardine flakes, or a kind of seaweed called aonori. At the shop Obachan in Aoba Yokocho, twenty-five varieties of oden are on offer, served alongside cups of Shizuoka green tea and local beer.

To the west in Nagoya, it’s a different story. Oden did a stint on the street here as well, sold from yatai for a while before moving indoors. Each shop had its own recipe and specialty items, with eclectic results across the city.

Everything is gleaming and fragrant at Shimasho, one of Nagoya’s most venerable oden restaurants, open since 1949. With steam rising from a burnished copper pot, the oden here is visibly different from Shizuoka’s. The most striking difference is Nagoya oden’s calling card: a thick, red-brown miso-based broth. It’s said that Nagoya people love miso, and it is featured in many of the city’s favorite dishes. The miso used here is the area’s native hatcho miso, a red miso made entirely from soybeans that is thick, full-bodied and sweet.

Shimasho’s proprietor explains that they have only six carefully chosen items in their oden: tofu, konjac, taro root, eggs, daikon radish and beef. He points out that these items on their own are fairly bland and take on the essence of the broth; many are simmered long and slow to allow them to soak up plenty of flavor. The beef tendon is simmered separately, though, so that the gelatin doesn’t interfere with the other ingredients. Other items are neatly skewered and waiting in a square, aromatic pot for the customer’s perusal. The daikon gets the longest treatment: simmered for seven days, the perfect thick discs ending up a deep brown through and through, with an unbelievably strong, full-bodied red miso flavor.

Back in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, in the working-class neighborhood of Akabane, oden takes on yet another aspect. Long a factory town, Akabane’s main pedestrian shopping arcade, Ichibangai, bustles with foot traffic, people shopping and eating and imbibing from early in the day. Showa Era (1926-1989) drinking establishments are popular, and some advertise morning specials that will have you inebriated and with a full belly by noon.

In this neighborhood stands Koyama Brewery, the only sake brewery remaining in the Tokyo metro area. Shinshichi Koyama established the brewery in 1878. Today, Kuri Koyama, the wife of the brewery’s fifth-generation representative, talks about her company’s sake and their relationship with oden. Since Akabane is a factory town, she explains, people working the night shift would often finish work in the morning, and start drinking as early as nine a.m.

In Koyama’s grandfather’s time, customers would go to the tachinomiya (stand-up bars) in Ichibangai, and they wanted to drink sake with their oden. So Koyama Brewery formed a relationship with the popular oden shop Maruken Suisan, and developed a sake called Maru Cup—a spicy, dry sake packaged in a small drinking glass at a reasonable price. “It goes really well with the really salty types of oden,” says Koyama.
Koji Horii, the proprietor at Maruken Suisan, agrees. In fact, he says, it’s become a tradition to drink the last third of the Maru Cup “dashiwari,” or “cut with broth.” Patrons so love the flavors that come with mixing the oden broth with the sake that the shop figured out the exact ratio for a perfect brew that ensures maximum flavor, and had Koyama Brewery put hash marks on the side of the cup for ease of measuring. After drinking off two-thirds of their sake, customers bring their cups up to the counter to be topped off with a hit of broth, on the house. “It has to be this ratio,” Horii says. “There’s some kind of delicious chemistry that happens there.”
Maruken Suisan, opened in 1957, has forty possible ingredients in their signature oden, and the shop buzzes with customers. The oden joints in Shizuoka don’t open until evening, but here they get a very early start. “We open at 10:30 a.m.,” Horii says, “because this is Akabane.”

In addition to its signature sake, the shop’s popularity is undoubtedly due to its excellent broth, which is chicken and salt based, and a profusion of fresh ingredients. Produce and fish are delivered daily from nearby Tsukiji Market, and prep starts at six a.m. to produce the elements bubbling in the warming, addicting broth. Popular choices include nerimono (fish cakes made onsite) and options like fried, battered shrimp and ribbons of konbu seaweed tied in a bow. The selections, which are only simmered for ten to fifteen minutes to maintain the integrity of their individual flavors and textures, are served with a healthy dab of karashi—yellow spicy mustard that produces a rich burn.

No matter which variety of oden you choose, this tasty cooked dish and cultural mainstay is the perfect option if you want to get warmed up, filled up and happy this winter in Japan.