Usually when people think of Japanese food, they think of sushi, or ramen, but these are luxury foods that aren’t normally eaten at home. There is one food though that’s very popular in Japan, eaten on special occasions at home, and truly a wonderful food for winter: Oden (おでん).1
Oden is hard to explain, but it’s basically a kind of hot pot or stew where you cook various foods in there, and the family eats out of the same pot. We only cook 2-3 times a year, usually winter, since it requires a fair amount of preparation to make. I’ve also had it with my wife’s relatives in Japan during cold months.
Here’s my wife’s pot, with the oden having stewed for hours:
Inside, you can see may different foods, some skewered with bamboo sticks, others just cooking in the pot.
Oden always has a strongly brownish color due to the soy sauce and fish broth (dashi) based that’s used, similar to Udon and other foods. The items in our pot include Japanese radish (daikon), boiled and peeled eggs (yudé-tamago), fried tofu, Korean fish cakes (odeng-tang), Japanese fish cakes, noodles (harusamé) among many other things.
What’s fun is that there’s a large variety of things you can put into the pot and cook up. When you go to a convenience store in Japan, especially in Winter, they often have take-home oden, where you pick the foods you want to put in, they provide the broth, and you just carry it home. Alternatively, if you manage to find a traditional yatai food-cart,2 you can also enjoy oden there. As with the convenience store, just pick your ingredients, and enjoy. You can also mix in some Chinese hot mustard (karashii), too, but like wasabi that stuff can hurt if you add too much.
Oden sets are also available, both overseas and in Japan. These are usually frozen, and come with all basic items, but my wife likes to further embellish with boiled eggs, daikon radish. My wife doesn’t make from scratch (it would be too difficult), so using the frozen sets as a base works well for her.
Oden is a heavy comfort food, but is great on a cold winter’s evening, and well worth the opportunity if you can get it.
P.S. The Korean word odeng for the equivalent dish may be a loanword from Japan, probably during the colonial era (1910-1945), but beyond that, I am not sure.
1 I’ve never seen “oden” written in Kanji (Chinese Characters). If there’s kanji for it, it’s definitely not widely used. Shops that serve oden also write using hiragana script, not kanji.
2 I’ve been to Japan many times, but have never see one. They definitely seem to be a dwindling tradition / business model.