Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Oldest Fast-Food in Japan: Keeping Warm with Oden

Oden on sale in a local Family Mart costing from ¥70-¥100
Yet another post on food, reflecting the fact that in Japan autumn means eating: you will hear the phrase shokuyoku no aki (食欲の秋) - "autumn is about appetite" - a lot this time of year! This time round I'm focusing on oden, various ingredients soaked in a hot soy-flavoured dashi broth. This has become a common sight in convenience stores (combini) now the hot weather has finished. Oden has been called the oldest fast food in Japan and apparently goes back hundreds of years. Usually, you ask the clerk for the specific ingredients you want and he or she then picks these out of the hot metal case and puts them into a polystyrene bowl for you to take away. This savoury "pick-n-mix" hot-pot is usually eaten with mustard (karashi) or other more exotic condiments (such as yuzu-koshō =pepper) which are free.

So what are the ingredients? Although they vary by region (as does the colour and taste of the broth), most of the classic ingredients can be seen in the Family Mart convenience store selection pictured right. These are separated into eight compartments, numbered in the picture. ❶ is white radish (daikon), ❷ deep-fried tofu with vegetables (ganmo), ❸ is the ever favourite boiled egg (yude-tamago), and ❹ contains tube-shaped fish-paste cakes (known as chikuwa - the white one is called chikuwa-bu which is actually made from rice). Note the tied kelp bundle (kombu) lurking on top of the chikuwa too. Moving on to the bottom half of the picture, ❺ is a devil's tongue jelly (konnyaku) block plus some konnyaku noodles (ito-konnyaku) which is called shirataki on the menu and ❻ features burdock (gobō) and sausages wrapped in more deep-fried tofu. ❼ features tsukune (a kind of minced chicken) on a skewer with some sausages floating around (another common meat on a stick is gyūsuji or beef tendon/sinew which is ridiculously good). Finally, ❽ contains a "pouch" or "purse" made of deep-fried tofu probably with rice-cake (mochi) inside known as kinchaku together with some chunks of deep-fried tofu (atsu-age) and (maybe) a triangle-shape fish cake known as hanpen (sometimes it's difficult to see exactly what's swimming in the broth!). A full menu in Japanese is given below (from a 7-11); for an English description of the some of the various delicacies see here.

On the down side, there has recently been some discussion on social media (for example, here) about how hygienic convenience store oden actually is, with talk of insects and dust and even stories of customers and staff coughing into the stuff! While this may be something of an over-reaction in cleanliness-obsessed Japan, the fact is that oden isn't always covered with a lid in these stores (as the top picture showed). If you are concerned about hygiene, maybe the safest bet would be to buy in a supermarket or, even better, a proper oden restaurant - here is a list of ten of the best oden-dokoro (おでん処) in Tokyo - prices generally begin at around ¥3,000.