Oden, a Japanese soul food

It was 4 in the afternoon, I was in between my transit back home from work and was hungry. All I had that day was a toast in the morning and was craving for food. I decided to look for something good inside the train station. Now a days, train station in Tokyo are like mall in itself. JR (Japan railways) Tokyo and Shinagawa Station are among the best mall like train stations and I was transiting in Shinagawa so I decided to stop by before my next train home and have a late lunch.

JR Shinagawa station’s shopping zone are divided into sections with about 100 stores all packed in the station. You don’t need to get out of the station if you are using JR lines, all you need todo is to get out of the train, go up one floor and you will be greeted with tons of stores. I find this place very useful, I can just stop by when changing trains and do a mini grocery shopping on my way back home. I can grab a freshly baked baguette, cured ham, cheese and a bottle of wine and even some sweet for dessert and just pop back right in the next train home.

Standing in the middle of the Shinagawa station, I had a lot of choice. Today, I wanted something simple. Something leaning toward Japanese. Something soothing… I walked passed a Japanese restaurant and saw “Oden”. Yes, Oden will be a perfect choice for a day like this. I think every Japanese will agree with me if I call “Oden” a soul food. Everybody loves it. It wasn’t that popular when I was a kid until Seven Eleven started selling Oden during winter season. When Seven Eleven put up a poster saying “Oden is available” in late summer (they don’t sell it during summer), it’s a sign that summer is over and we are heading the cold winter season. There will be a large pot with veggies and dumpling simmering in a Japanese broth near the register counter and when ordering, you just tell the sales clerk what you want and they will put it in a plastic bowl with a ladle full of broth, lid closed, piping hot and ready to take home.

Oden is simply some sort of dumpling and veggies simmered in a Japanese Broth. The broth are usually bonito broth lightly salted with salt or soy sauce. The color of the broth varies depending of what part of Japan you are in. The west part of Japan are more light colored with the strong bonito taste and the eastern part of Japan the broth tend to be more darker, seasoned with more soy sauce.

The ingredients for Oden varies by the location but the fixed ones are : Daikon, boiled egg, all sorts of fish dumplings, tofu and tofu related dumplings. If you’re from the city nearby the ocean, there will be more seafood related oden ingredients like, crab, shrimps and more fish. On the other hand there are places with lots of creative veggie ingredients for oden. Anything can go in oden with only one tip. Make sure the ingredient doesn’t melt into the broth. The broth simmered in with varieties of ingredients makes the soup rich with umami, but the soup should remain somewhat clear and light. (The oden in the picture above is made with chicken bone stock so it’s opaque in color but it’s still a clear clean soup)

To keep the soup as clear and light as possible, most of the ingredients are pre-cooked before they are simmered in the oden stock. Daikon are thickly cut (like the picture above), edge trimmed off (to avoid the thin edge to get bruised and melt in the broth) and are pre-boiled before simmering in the oden broth. On the other hand store bought dumplings are usually pre-cooked so you can just place them in the broth. The rule is, if it is raw=pre-cook it before simmering in the oden broth. When placing the ingredients in the pot, pack them tightly in the pot so it won’t dance around the pot while simmering. This will avoid the ingredients to fall apart and make the soup all muddy and simply it doesn’t look good. Also for the same reason the heat when simmering should be at the lowest.

My favorite oden ingredients are daikon, boiled egg, fish dumplings, tofu, chicken drumsticks and deep fried tofu stuffed with mochi. The overall taste is very light but each ingredients have their own distinct taste. The veggies are sweet and refreshing, others are more stuffed with umami. The texture varies from soft to chewy and in every bite the lightly flavored bonito stock just fills your mouth. Oden are usually served in Japanese style bars and eaten accompanied with sake or beer. Homemade ones will be eaten as lunch or dinner and will be served with rice and pickles. I love preparing large pot of oden and enjoy them for 2-3 days. On the third day, by repeatedly re-heating the broth, the taste becomes richer and I end up adding udon into the broth and enjoy it to the end.

If you had never tasted oden before, try it at a Japanese casual restaurant during winter. Once you eaten it, try cooking it at home by dropping by at your local Japanese supermarket and check the chilled or freezer section for oden. They usually comes in plastic bag packed in with soup and ingredients so when you get home you only need reheat it. There are another version where varieties of dumplings are packed in with a sachet of diluted oden broth. For this version, you would have to dilute the broth according to the package, heat it up, then add the ingredients. For both version, I recommend buying a daikon and extra egg to pre-cook and add it to your store bought oden sets. After you tried making oden by using these oden pre-packed sets, you can know go wild by making your own version. All you need is a good Japanese stock, varieties of ingredients and several hours of simmering it in a low tempt.

As I’m writing this post, I’m craving a bowl of oden. Maybe I should make a spring version of oden by adding newly picked bamboo shoots !



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