What is that...supposed to be?
Oden is a wintertime favorite among Japanese people. The term oden encompasses many different ingredients and cooking styles but boils down to fish cakes and veggies in a pot with broth. No pun intended. Until I moved to Kanazawa and was thoroughly schooled, I always assumed that oden was its own word, with the emphasis on the “O” and a little den, probably officially spelled with the kanji for electricity or tradition.
What is Oden?
It's a dish that comes in the form of huge blocks of tofu and daikon wheels, mysterious balls, and edible tubes. I learned the hard way. In person, with many a boiled egg sloppily dropped into hot broth. I invite you to discover the history and particulars of oden from the safety of your screen first rather than throwing you right into the soup. Again...no pun intended.
Try oden for yourself on our Osaka Food Tour!
The History of Oden
In the 1400s, thick cuts of firm tofu were skewered, roasted/grilled, and served with a slather of miso. This came to be known as “tofu dengaku”, because the skewers resembled the wooden pogo sticks used by dengaku street performers. Dengaku was written 田楽, and oden still uses the reading of this first character, "田”. During the Edo period, dengaku was popularized and sold fresh alongside grilled dango and unagi eel at street stalls and stop-ins. At this time, dengaku expanded outside of tofu to include vegetables. In Osaka, blocks of konnyaku were prepared the same way and introduced as konnyaku dengaku.
There are several stories tracing the origin of today’s boiled oden, but the general consensus is that at some point in the late 1800s to early 1900s, various ingredients started to be boiled together in broth, leading to a delicious dashi soup and readily available street food.
For a long time, oden was limited to eating outside of the house, and many oden-ya only even catered to men who would stop by after work. In the 1950s, oden finally became a household product, thanks to economic recovery after the war. Markets could sell food that was ready to eat but difficult or time-consuming to make, like soup stock and surimi/fish cake. Thus, it was much easier to buy the ingredients and finish off the dish at home.
Oden is now available in supermarkets, pre-made at convenience stores, and easy to eat at an izakaya or specialty shops. Because it’s a nimono (boiled food, like nabe or sukiyaki), it's traditionally eaten during the colder months, in the range of October to April.
What does oden mean in Japanese?
As mentioned above, the first iteration of oden was “tofu dengaku”, named after its wooden skewers. When the dish was popularized in the Kantou region around the Edo period, the gaku was dropped. An honorific “o,” the same one we see heading words like omiyage (souvenirs), was added.
In Kansai, boiled oden was called Kantou-boil, “Kantou daki”, after it was introduced by chefs from Tokyo. The name evolved over time, but oden always refers to the ingredients boiled in broth and eaten individually rather than as a stew.
Japanese oden really only has two definite elements: broth for boiling and the ingredients that get boiled! In 2021, the most popular oden choices were daikon radish, boiled eggs, chikuwa, konnyaku, and hanpen rounding out the top five. Other widely available ingredients are mochi-purses (kinchaku), beef tendon skewers, and of course, tofu.
Thick rounds of daikon boiled over a long period of time are the perfect ingredient to enjoy the particular flavors of oden soup. The mild veggie softens as it soaks, making it easy to break into pieces with chopsticks and enjoy bite-by-bite. Daikon is an essential ingredient in a bowl of oden!
Peeled hard-boiled eggs were the second most popular oden. Their preparation is similar to the ajitama found topping ramen. Pre-boiled and then soaked during the oden-making process, hard-boiled eggs take on the tasty brown hue and flavor of the broth. They are filling, nutritious, and admittedly dangerous. One wrong move and that hefty member of the oden party will splash broth all over your shirt and the table. I rarely see it served skewered, but if you ask me...it would be a good idea!
Chikuwa are a type of Japanese fish cake that looks a like brown and white tube and have a chewy texture that falls between a chicken nugget and tofu. The unique shape makes it fun to eat, and the mild seafood flavor is well suited to oden’s broth. It’s a uniquely Japanese and highly recommended ingredient if you want the full “oden” experience.
Konnyaku and Shirataki
Fourth on the list is an ingredient you may recognize for its recent popularization as a health food. Shirataki noodles and konnyaku are very firm jellies or “cakes” made of yam. They soak in the flavor of whatever they are prepared in, like daikon, but have a crunchy-bouncy-chewy texture likened to squid sushi or jellyfish.
Hanpen and Other Fish Cakes
Hanpen was the fifth most popular oden ingredient in 2021, and is said to be named after the chef who invented it in the Edo period (but I didn’t come across any relation to it with oden at that time). Hanpen is white and spongey surimi with a fluffy texture.
Surimi fish paste, made into cakes or mixed with other ingredients, comes in many styles. There’s Kagoshima’s satsuma age which is fried and has veggies mixed in and dense slices of kamaboko that are found in ramen and regional oden. Japanese fish balls and fish cakes come in all sorts of other shapes and flavors too.
Kinchaku are purse-shaped tofu skins named after small bags used in the Edo period for carrying one’s personal belongings. They are often filled with mochi that softens during boiling. Sometimes shirataki or other small ingredients come in these tasty little sachets, but mochi is by far the most common.
Beef Tendon and Tsukune
Gyuu-suji, or beef tendon, and tsukune (meatballs or meatloaf on a stick) are two of the popular meat options in oden. Gyuusuji is skewered tendon boiled until soft and chewy. It is savory and delicious, not to mention pretty healthy, thanks to its high protein content!
Tsukune come in lots of flavors, just like meatballs: soy sauce, barbeque, etc. Cabbage rolls are popular too, featuring a hunk of meatloaf or other protein thickly wrapped in cabbage and cooked until the leaves soften in oden broth.
Rounding out the bottom of the list is oden’s original player: tofu! Atsuage tofu (thick-cut, fried tofu), simple boiled tofu, tofu with vegetables mixed in and fried…all kinds of tofu can be found in your typical bowl of oden. True to form, tofu absorbs the flavor of the oden broth, becoming more delicious the longer it soaks.
Regional Cuisine and Oden
Japan is famous for its regional cuisine and the characteristic taste of each area. Thanks to a wide range of climates and natural resources across the nation, oden has adapted quite a bit to local preferences!
1. Tokyo Style Oden
2. Kyoto Style Oden
3. Nagoya Style Oden
4. Shizuoka Style Oden
5. Kanazawa and the North
6. Other Unique Offerings
Tokyo Style Oden
The “original” home of oden, Tokyo-style oden relies heavily on fish cakes and fish-paste-based ingredients, and katsuo-boshi dashi broth. It has a light brown (beef-broth-looking) stock and a soy sauce-forward, sweet taste! Sometimes, oden is called Japanese fish-cake soup or fish-ball soup. This makes a lot of sense, considering the most widely available version relies on various shapes and flavors of fish cake for its unique look and taste!
Check out our blog on the best Oden Restaurants in Tokyo for where to try this tasty winter food.
Kyoto Style Oden
An even lighter broth than its Tokyo cousin, the broth of Kyoto oden takes its flavor from salt and kombu. Kyoto Oden’s special ingredients are taro and simple, light-tasting tofu.
Nagoya Style Oden
Because it uses hacchou miso, Nagoya’s version of Oden looks totally different! Its rich, deeply flavored broth soaks into roasted tofu and pork skewers.
Shizuoka Style Oden
Using ingredients like black hanpen and a dark, rich-tasting broth makes Shizuoka Style Oden stand out. All of the ingredients in this oden are skewered. Its unique features come from the beef tendon broth and dark-fleshed fish used to make it.
Kanazawa and the North
Between the Touhoku region, Hokkaido, and Kanazawa, the Northern regions of Japan enjoy the fruits of the Japan sea. Oden from these areas features fresh seafood like crab and shellfish. My own Kanazawa reports that its particulars are the high-quality crab, pretty sea snails, and fragrant soy sauce broth unique to our oden. Hokkaido's claim to fame is a marriage of the flavors of land and sea, while those from Aomori top their boiled oden with a slather of miso like the old days.
Other Unique Offerings
In Okinawa, trotters and chilled summertime oden are common offers. There’s even a sweets shop in Tokyo that served dessert oden with an oolong tea base! Osaka oden uses a chicken broth soup, and there are areas known for unique add-ins like chicken wings or gyoza-style fish cakes with dumpling filling. Overall, oden has a reputation for being healthy because of its low-fat content and filling, digestion-promoting ingredients like konnyaku, daikon, and fiber-filled gobo maki. In fact, it was even served and promoted at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
How do you eat oden?
The easiest way to get a steaming bowl of oden is to have it ladled out at one of Japan’s convenience stores during the winter months. Simply point to what you want and watch as it gets politely arranged in a big styrofoam bowl, topped with a lid reading, “Please eat this soon!”. They have free flavor packets to change the broth to your liking, like yuzu koshou for citrus brightness, shichimi for a little heat, and thick miso tare sauce. It’s common to enjoy oden with Japanese karashi mustard, but be careful! Like wasabi, a little goes a long way.
In terms of physically eating the multitude of shapes you might find in an oden bowl, it really depends. Of course, chopsticks are the utensil of choice, but from there, you might un-skewer your oden and leave it to sit in the broth, carefully pinch and pull tofu into smaller pieces or just pick up the whole hunk and take bites. I will admit, eating oden is not a graceful affair. But it is delicious!
Abroad, oden-style fish cakes are easy to find in any East-Asian market. Pre-arranged oden sets with recommended ingredients and broth bases can be found in the frozen foods section of retailers like H-mart. Simply simmer the ingredients in your preferred Japanese-style konbu or dashi stock, miso soup base, etc., for a couple of hours (admittedly, I am lazy and usually cap out at about 30 minutes when making it at home…) and enjoy a healthy, unique taste of Japan!
A pun intended
"There's a sale? O! Den, I guess I'll have one of each!"
It's a joke, but not a bad option! Every ingredient is unique and has its own merits. Oden is one of the most fun, novel dining experiences you can enjoy in Japan, and taste-testing is exciting in itself. From ready-to-go convenience store oden that pays homage to its street-food beginnings to specialty shops with broths boiled and concentrated for months or years, oden takes many forms and flavors. Plus, the regional variety will keep you coming back no matter where you travel! Next time you scroll through the emoji page, we hope you’ll remember that little stick of goodies, "oden".
Eating oden at Miyuki
For this article, I took a trip to one of Tabelog's (like YELP!, but only in Japan) top 5k restaurants in the whole country: Miyuki in Kanazawa! While waiting for about 45 minutes in line outside, you could hear people calling out orders for nama-beer and oden. It was only about 30 degrees out, so perfect oden weather, although I was freezing!
The owners were kind enough to teach me a little about Kanazawa's oden, its uniquely light, unsweet broth that highlights the delicate flavors of seafood, and the sources of their products. Kaga lotus root, sea salt from the Noto peninsula, and local produce come together to make a delicious meal.
Miyuki's owners didn't just celebrate their own menu and innovation, they made a point to tell me about how great all of their sources were. One of their most popular menu items is a traditional eggplant dengaku, so you can enjoy the oden of today and its origins at the shop. I got really lucky too-their beef tendon is so popular that it sold out only 2 hours after opening, but the owners gave me the last one!
You can feel the masters' pride in their tightly packed counter space, which was filled with every type of customer (the other solo-dining woman next to me had brought her anime figures and was photographing them with her oden, it was awesome.). I was very thankful that they were so open to offering recommendations and letting me photograph inside!
Looking for more food's to warm up with? Read all about the best Winter Food's in Tokyo.