The pleasures of a slow simmered stew!

Mention that you’re serving oden for dinner, and you can be sure you’ll have a few folks knocking on your door around 6:00pm! Japanese people love their oden; a slow-cooked homey dish, consisting of ingredients that typically include daikon, konnyaku, a variety of fish paste products, hard-boiled eggs, and meat such as beef tendon or chicken balls, practically submerged in a tasty broth and simmered for hours on end, releasing mouth-watering puffs of aromatic steam while it cooks. It is often served with delicious piquant Japanese mustard for a little “kick!”. While ingredients may differ depending on the season and region, oden has become one of Japan’s “can’t-do-without” comfort foods. Let’s find out how oden came to be!

History of Oden

It is said that the word oden developed from dengaku. Documents from the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) tell us that dengaku was commonly made at home and consisted of blocks of boiled tofu on short skewers that were slathered with savory miso and then grilled. Now let’s take another step back and look at the derivation of the word dengaku!

Dengaku was a type of public entertainment that was part of the Japanese agricultural rites from long ago. The tofu on skewers resembled certain entertainers who performed on short stilts called taka-ashi, and it is from this resemblance that the name dengaku came about (den, by the way, means rice field).

From around 1785, as the presence of yatai (portable food stalls) rapidly increased in the bustling city of Edo, we began to see dengaku being sold from these stalls. Now not only tofu, but konnyaku, eggplant, satoimo (taro) and fish were also sold as skewered, tasty treats. They were inexpensive, convenient and easy to eat, and soon became quite popular as snacks for the working class.

In Edo, at the end of the Edo period, the practice of cooking dengaku began. The ingredients that were originally briefly boiled before miso was applied were now gently stewed in a small amount of tasty stock called dashi. During this period, dishes with a strong soy sauce flavor were popular, and this likely had an influence on the change in dengaku preparation as stewing the ingredients gave them a deeper, more concentrated flavor. As for the name change from dengaku to oden, it is said that the court ladies from the Imperial Household added the honorific preface o- to dengaku (odengaku), and the shortened version oden was what it came to be commonly called.

Oden As We Know It

From the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) onward, there was a progressive increase in the ingredients used, and in 1887, about midway through the era, one restaurant in Tokyo began offering a type of oden that had the ingredients cooking in an iron pot with a large amount of dashi, as opposed to the previous version of oden that was served with only a small amount of liquid. Before long, other restaurants in Tokyo began copying this method, and oden simmered in copious amounts of dashi became the norm, spreading from eastern Japan to western Japan and from there to all reaches of the country.

Oden consists of dashi made from konbu (kelp) or katsuo bushi (bonito flakes), flavored with soy sauce or miso, with a variety of ingredients that differs from region to region, and household to household. But no matter where we are in Japan, or who is cooking, fish paste products, tofu, and vegetables such as daikon and satoimo are practically indispensable, no matter what other goodies join them in the pot! We can probably say that oden is a compilation of all tastes familiar to and loved by the Japanese.

Oden! Easily available as a snack at many yatai and convenience stores! It’s also a perfect accompaniment to a relaxing drink after a hard day’s work, and can even serve as a dish for chefs to show off their skills at specialty restaurants! Eaten at home, it conjures up warm memories of dinners made with love, simmering on the family stove. Oden is one of those dishes said to become more delicious in the days after it is prepared, making the words “left-overs” seem very appealing!

Japanese cuisine is often classified by the –mono suffix (yakimono, grilled or roasted items; agemono, deep fried items, etc.) and oden has long been considered a nabemono (hot pot) or nimono (stewed dish) both of which it is not. Perhaps oden should be in a special genre of its own, “oden-mono,” a tasty hodge-podge of ingredients slowly cooked together for hours in plenty of flavorful dashi. Delicious anytime, oden warms the hearts of those who enjoy it, be it as a snack or family dinner. Maybe tonight might be a good night to enjoy sitting around a steaming pot of oden and feel the love?