Saturday, December 17, 2011

Japanese Oden......Never Judge the Book by Its Cover

Something I really enjoy while living in Japan is tasting new food every time I have the chance. It is amazing to know that it doesn’t  matter how much new food I have tasted , there is still plenty to discover and to explore with.
Last week I went to the supermarket with my husband, and I saw something that immediately called my attention.  There was a stand with lots of bags with many odd things inside. I took one,  and I  read the name was oden. Even though, it look kind of weird, I decided to buy one for my dinner that night. I asked my husband if he would join me in this new tasting experience, but his answer was a definitive no…….after having a look to that bag.

Oden bag from the supermarket.....

When most non Japanese people first see oden, they usually start by swearing to themselves that it will never, ever enter their stomachs. Newcomers to Japan are most likely to see it in their local convenient stores sitting in big metal tanks (next to the nikuman).  The smell that goes along with it is usually gagging, and you'll be forgiven if you think it looks more like a bad science experiment gone really wrong. It's unfortunate that people have to see it in such a setting. Convenience store oden is of course, swill, but if you're daring enough to try it in a real restaurant, or better yet an oden restaurant, you might just become an oden lover like me.
So what is oden? Taking a look in the pot below, it appears to be a bunch of mainly unrecognizable things boiled in murky water. You are correct in this assumption.

Good oden restaurants aren't that common though, and if you've got a craving you might be tempted to go to the convenient store. Luckily for me, before I sunk to those depths I found an oden package set in my local supermarket. Oden in a bag! Mmmm, looks pretty gross....I am sure that’s why my husband refused to eat it…..

Oden in the pot

Ok but you're probably thinking 'What the hell is some of that crap made out of'? Allow me to explain you on what you can expect to find in a regular serving of oden:
Can't get much more normal than a boiled egg right? The brownish color comes from being boiled in brown colored soup. Probably the most common oden ingredient. You'll always find an egg or two in your oden. Yum!

Hard boiled egg

First time for me to see a chicken leg in oden, and after seeing this one, I hope I never do again. It looked like it had already been boiled for a few million years before it made it to my apartment. Grisly tendons and grey bone stuck out everywhere making me think this was some zombie chicken or something. However like most things you find in oden, it ended up tasting so good…... Just close your eyes, and don’t judge the book by the cover….
Still in the realm of normality, although this may look a bit scary, it's actually just a chicken meatball called a 'tsukune' in Japanese. Pretty tasty!

Chicken leg

Looking quite threatening at first glance, you're actually in for a treat. Although it may appear to be a slab of monkey brain or maybe jellyfish, it's actually only a slice of 'daikon' which is just a big radish. Next to eggs, this is another staple. You'll always find daikon in your oden. Very nice!


Back home, any plant that comes out of the water is automatically 'seaweed' but here in Japan, they have names for each different one! Not only that, they eat some of them! Living far from the ocean in El Salvador, seaweed never entered my diet, but some of it is actually pretty tasty. Here we have some 'konbu' tied in a pretty little knot. You might know it as that thick rubbery seaweed called 'kelp' (the only seaweed name that I know in English) that always washes up on the beach and stinks. Yeah it's food here.

Oden Konbu

Ok now we're getting into the realm of the bizarre. Cheerfully known as a 'fishcake' in English, this unrecognizable log is pressed and processed fish paste wrapped around a piece of burdock (an unknown vegetable in the Western world). I'll admit this one takes some warming up to, but tasty all the same. Burdock, known as 'gobo' in Japanese, is one of those things that tastes much better than it looks.

Oden Goboumaki

Oden Tsukune

Is it a piece of octopus that's had the crap boiled out of it? A dead and peeled piece of bloated snake? Nope, it's fishcake again. This one is called a 'chikuwa' in Japanese and no one today can figure out why it was ever invented. I suppose the shape is supposed to resemble an octopus leg? Not sure. Anyway despite its horrid appearance, it's also pretty good. Be brave!

Oden Chikuwa

Last on the list of the eight items in my oden bag is perhaps one of the strangest members of the team. Called 'konnyaku', this grey, speckled lump is always cut into a triangle shape but don't ask me why. It may look like a shark fin but it's just a lump of gelatin, completely tasteless gelatin at that. This is another oden staple which you'll almost always find, but definitely tasty. 

Oden konyaku

Although there were only 8 different items in the bag, this is by no means a complete list. When it comes to oden, pretty much anything that can be boiled until it's just on the point of becoming mush is fair game. 
So what's the verdict on oden-in-a-bag from the supermarket? Well although I do like oden, supermarket bag oden is only one step up from the stuff at the convenient store. If you have a chance to go to a real oden restaurant, take it! You'll thank me later. Don't forget the karashi (spicy mustard), when your sinuses are on fire you'll know you've used the right amount. It's all part of the fun!




  1. I think I would like to try it!! I have some adventurous taste buds!lol! I probably missed it but what does it taste like? Or better yet can you mail me some here to Texas ;p!

  2. Hehehehe I would love to mail some there. Actually I think you can find it in a very good Japanese restaurant in the US. The taste is spectacular. You have to try it Cely. Thanks for the comment.