Oden is a classic Japanese fish stew much beloved in the wintertime, when little street stalls ladle out bowls of goodness. In entertainment districts, around dusk, blue tents pop up out of nowhere to serve oden and beer, only to disappear again by dawn. The name is obscure: originally named after a type of classical dance called dengaku (why? beats me...), the name first acquired the honorific o- and then dropped the -gaku, resulting in just plain oden.

To the uninitiated, the taste may also be a little obscure at first, since oden consists of various mysterious fish products boiled for hours on end in a very Japanese-flavored broth. It is also notoriously difficult to eat with chopsticks; just try picking up a slippery whole boiled egg!

Ingredients

The easiest way to prepare oden is to go to your friendly neighborhood Japanese food shop and buy an "oden set", which contains all the bits you would have trouble procuring otherwise. The real way, though, is to mix and match the stuff you like, more probably than not including a few of these:

Chikuwa: Hollow, tubular cakes of processed fish. Looks scarily like a squid tentacle due to the odd suction-cup-ish bits on the surface, but tastes like fish.

Daikon: Japanese giant white radish. To prepare, peel and cut into slices 2-3 cm thick. Score gently with a knife tip, drawing an X on both sides. Boil until soft and translucent; you can add a handful of rice to the water to absorb some of the bitterness.

Eggs: Shelled hard-boiled eggs are excellent (for chopstick practice too). Quail's eggs (uzura no tamago) can also be used, but outside Japan they are not really worth the extravagant price difference.

Kamaboko: Thin white slices of fish sausage.

Kombu: Kelp. To prepare, soak until wet, slice into 2x10 cm bits, fold once and tie into a knot.

Konnyaku: Bizarre, very firm, almost tasteless jelly. Slice into matchbox-sized chunks to prepare. Not one of my favorites, and hard to find outside Japan anyway.

Satsuma-age: Deep-fried kamaboko.

Taro: A type of sweet potato. You can substitute almost any tuber, including but not limited to plain old potato, yam, turnip, even rutabaga. To prepare, boil until almost cooked.

Tofu: Many types of tofu can be used in oden. Just plain raw momen-type (hard) tofu cut into large cubes is great for absorbing the broth. Deep-fried tofu and vegetable cakes (ganmodoki) are also frequently spotted.

Tsumire: Fish balls (as in "spherical objects", not "testicles"). You can make your own by substituting ground fish into your favorite meatball recipe.

The above are all orthodox oden ingredients, but almost anything goes; the one criterion is that it should retain its shape and not dissolve into the broth. Also note that, unlike most Japanese food, the chunks in oden are considerably bigger than bite-size; this allows some flavor to be retained despite the long cooking time.

Broth

If you bought an oden set, it more likely than not included a little baggie of concentrated oden broth. If not, try this for approximately 4 servings:

6 cups water or weak dashi
1/2 cup sake or very dry white wine
3 tbsps mirin
3 tbsps soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt

Instructions

Bring broth to boil, stirring well. Add the prepared ingredients of your choice and simmer over a low heat for a bare minimum of one hour, during which time the broth should be reduced by about one-third.

When done, place the pot on the table and let diners serve themselves. The usual accompaniment is a dash of the strongest mustard you can find and large quantities of beer. Itadakimasu!

Oden keeps well for about two days and is generally judged to be tastier on the second day.

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