Oden originated from dengaku, which is boiled tofu, coated in miso paste, roasted on a skewer. The name came from the traditional dengaku-mai (dengaku dance) dedicated to the gods of a bountiful harvest. Dengaku performers wear white sleeveless clothing and red cowls while striding over a rod. Some people say the oden skewer resembles these dancers.
During the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate promoted mass production of soy sauce, and dengaku began to be steeped in soy-sauce-flavored soup. New ingredients were added to the world of oden, including ganmodoki (fried tofu with added vegetables and hijiki seaweed), abura-age (thinly sliced fried tofu), and potato. Since nerimono fishcake was a rare luxury food, flour cake was served to commoners.
During the latter half of the Edo Period through the Meiji Period, steeped dengaku was transformed into oden in soup. Daikon radish, now indispensable to oden, became a popular ingredient.
After the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and following World War II, Kansai cooks arrived in Tokyo to help in the recovery. They set up soup kitchens and introduced their bouillon, featuring shaved dried bonito and kombu seaweed soup base. Today’s oden is simmered in plenty of such soup and light-taste soy sauce.
The number of oden foods has increased over generations, now numbering 36 selections and up to 40 in peak season. Diverse oden types include nerimono paste products, vegetables, and seafoods, and guests can enjoy different seasonal foods.
Otafuku offers these many oden foods, each separately prepared with the master’s expertise. Stewing time varies by material. For example, even in the octopus family, regular octopus and octopus ocellatus require different treatment. Precooking starts with removal of scum from original ingredients, and fishcakes are cleansed of oily coating with boiled water, preventing oxidation in stewing and avoiding loss of umami. The master boils daikon pieces once and soaks them in cold water for a clean, translucent appearance before putting them into the oden pan. He takes three days to prepare oden, from peeling vegetables and boiling ingredients until bouillon soup permeates the pieces.
Mr. Funadaiku says, “My oden shop’s basic method is to add new soup to old soup stock. Oden soup from one day is reboiled and filtered through cotton cloth at the end of the day, and I combine it with newly made soup next day. I do this because the soup held various oden foods for a day. There’s no reason to throw away this treasure!”
Karashi (Japanese mustard) served on oden is actually white, but added turmeric gives it a yellow color. A type of herbal medicine until the latter half of the Edo Period, karashi was first used to prevent food poisoning but is also a stomach-friendly ingredient. It adds a stimulating accent to oden.
Asakusa Oden Otafuku was founded in 1915. The original shop started in Hozenji-Yokocho, Osaka, in the middle of the Meiji Period. Its founder left this shop and came to Asakusa, Tokyo. Otafuku is popular for its oden taste as well as its feast of varied oden foods that inspire visitors to come back again and again.
Mr. Funadaiku inherited the tradition of the shop. But he believes such tradition cannot be maintained by simply repeating the success of the original master.
He adds, “If a predecessor puts 100% effort into his achievement, a successor who inherits the tradition must make 110% or 120% effort. Plus, the successor has to begin at the beginning and look for ever-better materials and enhanced skills while reexamining the way to serve oden to customers.”
Pride in a longtime shop can be tasted in its food and also seen in the master’s behavior. He notes, “This shop has been an Asakusa tradition for generations. And I’m constantly meeting the public. Since I like to keep the old-time mood of the shop, I try not to use too much modern vocabulary when holding conversations.” According to him, when customers feel something has been changed, that’s a failure. He wants to hear customers say, “It’s as tasty as always.” But he adds, “The truth is our taste has improved so much that there is no comparison to 10 years ago.”
The shop’s original dishes feature a traditional otafuku painting motif of a funny-face mask using Japanese writing for “oden.” The functional dish design includes a projecting part that looks like a handle but actually holds karashi mustard paste.
This features an otafuku mask painting just like the serving dishes. Hashioki is used to hold a pair of chopsticks, preventing them from falling off the table as well as keeping them clean, away from the surface of the table.
Since a pair of cooking chopsticks is exposed to hot water and soup for long periods, regular wooden chopsticks can’t endure the heat. At Otafuku, bamboo chopsticks are utilized to withstand heat and resist abrasion and warping. According to the master, the downside of bamboo chopsticks is that they are slipperier than wooden ones.
Originally used to measure rice and beans, this can be used as a sake cup. If you drink sake from this cup, you can also enjoy the rich scent of the wood. Taking a sip of sake from a corner is the right way to drink.
For customers at the table, the oden master moves oden foods to small pans and heats them over the stove before serving. Copper pans are chosen for their high thermal conduction. They also prevent oden soup from turning darker while keeping the bright fresh colors of foods like kombu seaweed and carrots.