Oden, a Japanese stew or hotpot

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Happy New Year! If you live in Japan, you are probably still in holiday mode. Elsewhere though, chances are you're back to your normal routine. That's where I am now - back to work!

I often get requests for various popular Japanese recipes. I keep on thinking I've written up so many of them already, until someone asks for one and I think "why didn't I put that up already?". One such recipe is for oden, a very popular Japanese stew dish that is especially suited to winter. Traditionaly it's made in a donabe or pottery pot, but it's not a requirement to use one. It's simmered slowly, so is perfect for a crockpot or my favorite for stewing anything, a Le Creuset-type of cast iron enamelled pot.

While I always strive to list recipes here that people without easy access to Japanese groceries can make, oden is an exception. Most of the main ingredients for oden are so time consuming to make from scratch, that you just have to buy them. I have tried to make my own satsuma age and hanpen, with decidedly mixed results. It's really hard to grind the fish down to a finely textured paste, even with a food processor. I do freqently make my own ganmodoki, tofu fritters (recipe here), but prefer to eat freshly made ones as-is, crispy and hot.

So, I just buy a selection of oden no mi (oden ingredients). Here's a selection:

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My local Japanese grocery store (Nishi's Japan Shop in Zürich) is tiny, but I could still assemble a good variety there. You can even buy complete oden sets, but I prefer to buy the individual items, which I supplement with some other ingredients.

Oden no mi

Here are some commonly used oden no mi that you would buy in packets. They are usually in the refrigerated or frozen food sections. The fish paste items are called nerimono.

  • Various kinds of deep fried fish paste items. The most traditional is Satsuma age, which are burger shaped. There are also Ika balls - fish paste 'meatballs' with a piece of squid inside, sausage-shaped ones with a piece of burdock (gobo) inside, and so on. They all have a golden brown color.
  • Chikuwa is fish paste shaped like a piece of bamboo (the name means "bamboo ring"), and grilled. There are various grades of chikuwa, but for oden the cheapest kind is fine.
  • Hanpen is also fish paste, which has been combined with yamaimo, a kind of tuber and egg whites. It's puffy and light, like a pillow shaped quenelle, and is one of my favorites.
  • Naruto is wheat flour paste that's been formed into a tube. It's often colored pink and white. Naruto is also used as a ramen topping. It's not a favorite of mine, but my mother loves it.
  • Ganmodoki - deep fried tofu fritters (a recipe, if you want to make them from scratch). The one thing that is not that hard to make.
  • Konnyaku (a detailed description)

To these, people often add:

  • Deep fried thin tofu (abura age), the same that is used to make inarizushi, stuffed with chopped vegetables, shirataki, and so on, then tied up with a piece of kanpyo (dried gourd) to resemble a kinchaku, or money purse.
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Pieces of daikon radish
  • Potatoes

I usually skip the tofu purses, but add one egg per person and lots of daikon, plus carrots.

In case you are wondering if all those fish paste items will make it taste 'fishy', it doesn't at all. Kids in Japan love oden, and your adventurous kids may too!

Oden, the easy way

This makes a big pot, which can be eaten all at once or over a few days. Oden, like most stews, deepens in flavor the more it's reheated. Keep it in the fridge in between reheatings though.

Note that while it takes its time to cook, your actual kitchen working time is quite short and easy.

  • 1 large piece of dried kombu seaweed. The larger, the better. Use a whole leaf if you can.
  • Water
  • A selection of packaged oden ingredients - the amount depends, but try to have at least one piece per person of ganmodoki and satuma age, and a few each of things like the squid balls. Allow for one to two pieces of konnyaku per person (each block of konnyaku can be cut into 4 triangles).
  • 1 medium sized daikon radish
  • 1 hard boiled egg per person
  • Optional: carrots, potatoes
  • Dried mustard powder (English mustard powder like Colman's is fine, or the equivalent from an Asian grocery. Prepared mustard like Dijon-style is not suited.)

Put the kombu in enough water to cover it completely. Let soak for at least 20 minutes.

Put the water and the kombu in a donabe or large stewing pot. Heat until it's nearly boiling but not bubbling violently.

In the meantime, peel the daikon and cut into fairly large pieces (usually it's just cut into rounds about 2 cm / about 1 inch thick). Cut up the carrots into fairly large pieces too. Potatoes should be added later.

Cut the konnyaku into triangles, and blanch for a few minutes in boiling water. Drain.

Add the daikon, carrots and konnyaku into the pot, adding more hot water if needed to cover. Let simmer until the vegetables are tender, for at least an hour, or more. The kombu should become quite soft.

Add the potatoes if you are using them, about 40 minutes before serving time.

Add the hardboiled eggs and the packaged ingredients, except for the hanpen. Simmer for at least 20 minutes.

Add the hanpen in the last 5 minutes or so.

Mix the mustard powder with a little water to reconstitute into a paste.

To serve, cut up the kombu - you should be able to do this in the pot with a spatula. Serve each person a good selection of the things in the pot, including pieces of kombu - or let them serve themselves, with a little bit of the broth. (We often used to fight about someone having more ganmodoki than they were alloted and things like that.)

Each person should take a small spoonful of the mustard and mix it into the broth if they like. If it's not salty enough, just drizzle a bit of soy sauce. Eat with hot rice, or sake.

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