Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Every year, when autumn starts (which, and in defiance to all logic, the Japanese believe that happens in the first week of August) they start appearing in the kobini and, especially in Asakusa and the other areas of shitamachi, in special small shops and even wooden kiosks with wheels that stop in specific spots; at first gingerly, as if they want to try passersby and later, as the weather changes and turns really into autumn, with more confidence. They are huge square metal pots in which various foodstuff in strange shapes –some like pouches, some like tubes, some round, some square, all in earthly brown and beige and gray and off-white shades- are simmering. When they are at a konbini, people order the stuff they want by the piece (each costs from 60 to 100 yen) while when they are at the dedicated kiosks-stands, they sit in low stools around the steaming pot and it them on the spot drinking beer or sake or shochu.
They are called “oden” (おでん) and their story goes way back, when farmers boiled the vegetables they picked from their fields together with miso and pieces of tofu; they were called “miso-dengaku” (味噌田楽) but with time the name changed to “dengaku”, then “odengaku” to become “oden” in the Edo period. In the meantime, their taste changed considerably, soy sauce took the place of miso and the vegetables became various fish byproducts –collectively called “nerimono” (練り物) most popular among which are kamaboko (かまぼこ), chikuwa (竹輪) and hanpen (半片)-, tofu prepared in different ways (atsu-age/厚揚げ, kinchaku/巾着 pouches filled with mochi rice, or ganmodoki/ がんもどき fried balls with vegetables), konbu kelp, boiled eggs, sausages, tsukune/つくね skewered chicken meatballs, octopus tentacles, konyaku (こんにゃく) jelly made of the plant with the impressive name “devil’s tongue”, daikon (大根) radish and about 100 more different ingredients, all boiled for hours in the same juice and served with hot karashi/からし mustard.
The Japanese say that if you don’t feel the need for oden when autumn nights start demanding for longer sleeves, you haven’t understood their country. Perhaps they are right: the truth is that given the consistency in the repetition of things in this culture, you develop a Pavlovian reaction to all kinds of stimuli and you start feeling a strange need in your eyes, your nose and your palate even if you aren’t an oden fanatic; I speak from experience since I’m still sitting on the fence when it comes to it: some of its ingredients I like very much and some other not at all. But especially here in shitamachi, it’s really hard to resist the charm of the familiarity between patrons sitting around the hearth and sharing jokes and discussions, creating instant acquaintances that will disappear after a “good-night”. The days of the big earthquake of 1923 that made oden essential as an easy source of nutrition that could be served in the soup kitchens for the victims have gone by but the need for togetherness in the face of literal and metaphorical cold remains and perhaps, after all, oden is the best way to nurture it.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.