The description I read of Oden described it as a thin soy flavoured stew, I read that it was a speciality of the area, so I was keen to try it. The restaurant has a bib gourmand in the Michelin guide so that is how we found our way there
The smell that wafted to me as slide the door open, was umami itself, a delicious smell that filled my nose with aroma and captivated my attention. Even while I carefully ducked under the curtain that signals the restaurant is open and avoided cracking my head on the low doorway.
I was soon sitting at the counter drinking beer and trying to figure out what I was about to start eating. The whole bar consisted of maybe 15 counter seats, all facing the servers. One of these guys spoke English, luckily for me he was happy to help us out. I was really afraid that this meal was going to become super awkward, thankfully no, it was a fun evening, one of my most enjoyable in Japan to date, it was such a hoot!
The steaming bain marie filed with Oden was just a few feet from my face, so I didn’t need to be concerned about a menu. I could recognise some of the items, so I mentioned I was happy to be led with the food to save on the confusion of translating. But with this being Japan and the hospitality wonderful I received a description of everything my friend fished out of the mildly undulating broth, occasionally the other punters helping us identify thigs, with whatever English they could muster.
Before I started eating I watched the locals, their configuration of bowls and plates seemed weird, it wasn’t actually weird, it was quite logical, just new. It turns out eating the oden was easy enough, with the larger pieces cut for us and served onto a communal plate, from here the food is either broken by chopsticks or eaten as it is from your own small individual plate, where you add the English style mustard on the table to the food as you wish, the locals were liberal with it.
Once I began eating I quickly realised that the initial description I had encountered is wildly inaccurate and does not deliver oden culinary justice. I would describe Oden as poached foods held in a gently simmering soy seasoned liquor. Though this description, albeit one I feel more appropriate, doesn’t do the liquor justice, this liquor is clearly much more complex than that.
With each time my communal plate was refilled the theatre of explanation wasrepeated, we formed an entertainment for the whole room, communication became like a game and all the guests became involved, in a really lovely way, translating with google, using cooking magazines, cookbooks, fish encyclopaedias as well as gesturing communication from all corners of the room. We later found out that we were the first westerners to ever step inside, I hope they are so welcoming to the next visitors.
I had observed the liquor being topped up during the night and noticed that different liquids were in use. Emboldened by beer I asked to try it, I explained I was a chef and was really curious about how this wonderful liquor was created. Although the liquor is not ordinarily drunk I was allowed to try it, the cook also allowing me to try the different component broths and at various stages of combination. He took the time to teach me about the liquor, I now know it is a blend of three liquors: one made from shitake and mirin, another made from kombu and dashi, and regular Kikkoman soy sauce. I even know that the dashi is made from a combination of pacific mackerel, skipjack tuna and striped mackerel.
When I ordered sashimi the cook took the same level of care to explain to me what fish I was being served, looking through his reference books to show me pictures of the fish I was about to eat. He explained that the fish was not sliced in the restaurant, and how the sliced fresh fish is wrapped in moist seaweed to preserves the freshness.
The owner was very happy we found the place, and I left full, a little drunk and also very happy. I was so pleased I delved into a new experience, I couldn’t thank the staff enough, the cook even blushing when my thanks were relayed to him.
I valued the experience of this meal almost more than the meal itself, I enjoyed the very simple food, and the nuanced flavours the liquor imparts into the food. It’s an understated and simple meal that I assume people eat at home quite often but it’s not the most delicious thing. In that way it’s similar to boiled dishes the world over, tasty not exciting.
Saying that I managed to eat more than my fair share of the following, all washed down with some draft Asahi.
Meatball – this was so flavoursome and juicy
Daikon – chopstick tender
Gluten – formed into a chewy ring
Potato – it was for me reassuring to see the guy not be able to lift something so slippery as a poached potato from the liquor with chopsticks, I still feel dumb, just a bit happier about my chopstick ability
A fish dumpling – this had more texture than the usual surimi
Konjac – a root vegetable that took some explaining, I have never seen it and assume it is a type of yam thanks for the assist google.
Smoked sausage – yum!
A huge surimi triangle
Tofu, not to soft or too firm.
A vegetable filled tofu dumpling – carrot, bean and lotus root filled the large cavity
And a mugwort stuffed bean curd money bag – I didn’t even know you could eat mugwort, this also took some research.