Oden, or fish cake stew, is as traditional Japanese as it gets. It’s a hearty but subtle combination of colors, flavors, and textures. Japanese Oden Stew is a one pot dish, frequently enjoyed in winter, that is packed with classic pantry items. Some of these ingredients may be new to you, but they are as common in Japanese kitchens as peanut butter and ketchup are in American kitchens.
Japanese Pantry Staples
When the weather starts to cool down, all over Japan, restaurants, food stalls, and beloved convenience stores start to sell Oden and the dizzying number of ingredients that can be put into the Oden is overwhelming. I’ve sampled everything from beef tendon, to squid, to cheese. There’s definitely something for every taste. Today, we are keeping it straightforward, with the essential ingredients that every good Oden should have. It’s what my mom always put in hers and now it goes in mine. So let’s go over what’s in this Oden.
Dashi Powder, Kombu, and Chicken Bones
Oden has a bunch of steps, so one of the shortcuts I take is using Dashi powder to make the base stock. You can make your own stock using katsuo bushi, smoked bonito flakes, but I find that dashi powder works fine in this recipe. You can find dashi powder without MSG if it bothers you. It’s important to pack the Oden broth with lots of flavor so that it infuses the items in the stew with delicious savoriness. In addition to the dashi powder, we add Kombu seaweed, which imbues a deep ocean flavor, along with the carcass of a cornish hen, to really round out and balance the flavor.
Konnyaku is a jellied yam cake. It’s a traditional Japanese ingredient that’s used in many stews, soups, and hot pots. Made from powdered konjac root (also called Devil’s Tongue Yam), konnyaku has a firm, chewy, gelatin like texture. Additionally, it’s a no calorie food that’s high in a fiber called glucomannan, which helps with weight loss. Like tofu, it doesn’t have a lot of flavor on its own, but soaks up the flavors it is cooked in. Konnyaku has frequently been used as a meat alternative in traditional vegetarian cooking. But now, with the recognition of the health benefits, American marketers have rebranded konnyaku noodles as the “miracle noodle”, so they are easily found at many grocery stores.
And now for the star of the Japanese Oden Stew show-fish cakes! Packaged fish cakes come in a fascinating array of varieties. Different kinds of fish, different shapes, different colors, different fillings… When I make Oden, I usually go with an assortment of Japanese types. These days, pickings can be slim at the markets, so today I’m using pink kamaboko, hanpen, and chikuwa. I know that packaged fish cakes can seem a bit funky to the uninitiated, but they are such a fun and convenient ingredient. All the shaping and cooking has been done for you. Just cut open the package and add them to your Oden stew. I always keep a bunch in the freezer so I have a simple side dish (broil a couple of minutes and serve with hot mustard or a dab of Chili sauce), or a quick ingredient for soups, hot pots, or even stir fries.
Many Asian countries make fish cakes but they can vary in flavor. Substituting fish cakes isn’t the end of the world, but I would recommend sticking to Japanese brands until you get more familiar with them.
Let’s Get Cooking!
Start by Prepping All the Ingredients
Begin with frying the tofu. You can use tofu cutlets which are already fried and save yourself a little time. However, I like to freshly fry medium firm tofu for this dish because I like the contrast between the chewy exterior and the soft delicate interior. By contrast, the packaged fried tofu cutlets are made with extra firm tofu so you will be missing that lovely softness. Be sure and blot any extra moisture from the tofu before frying.
Next peel and cut the daikon. Daikon, a mild white radish, is often used in Japanese stews, and in Oden it’s indispensable. You kind of need to have it-badly. There’s nothing like biting into a well simmered piece of daikon on a cold day; just trust me on this.
Then prep the konnyaku. If you’ve never opened a package of konnyaku, you might be surprised by the slightly fishy smell. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be that way. Give it a quick rinse and the smell will disappear. I like to make little slits across the surface of the konnyaku. This helps it absorb the flavor of the broth and also gives it a little visual pizzazz!
Breaking Down A Chicken
If you are using a whole cornish hen, you will need to break it down. I show you how to do that in the Hainanese Chicken recipe. Save the carcass for the broth to add extra flavor. I like to use a cornish hen because I like the size of the chicken pieces. They match up perfectly with the rest of the ingredients. Plus, you get the bones which help boost the umami in the broth. However, you could purchase chicken thighs to save some butchering time. Buy the smallest chicken thighs with bones. Alternatively, you could also buy a regular whole chicken, and only use some of the meat-the bones are what you’re after anyway.
Once you have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go, it’s time to make the Japanese Oden broth. Unlike other soup broths, this one doesn’t take hours to develop deep, complex flavor. Instead, it mostly relies on letting the dashi, kombu, mirin, and soy sauce simmer for a bit, along with the carcass. You should skim off any impurities/foam that rise to the top as it cooks for a clear broth.
Once the broth has simmered for 40 minutes or so, it will be really fragrant and take on a deep amber color. It’s now at the stage to add all the other ingredients, starting with the daikon and konnyaku, which take some time to cook and absorb flavor. Then one by one, you add the remaining ingredients, ending with the fish cakes, which briefly simmer to marry the flavors. Keep skimming occasionally to keep that broth nice and clear.
A couple things to do before serving include making little kombu knots and removing the carcass from the pot (getting to nibble the delicious little bits of chicken is the cook’s treat!). I like to serve the Oden with some hot mustard on the side since we like things spicy around here!
If you warm up with a bowl of this classic Japanese Oden Stew, let us know! Leave a comment, tag us in your insta pics at @funkyasiankitchen– show us the goods!
Traditional Japanese one pot fish cake stew.
- 1 cornish hen or 6 pieces small bone-in chicken thighs
- 2 pounds Daikon radish
- 6 boiled eggs
- 1 container medium firm tofu
- Oil for deep frying
- 1 package konnyaku
- 2 sheets kombu seaweed about 8 inches long each
- 1 tablespoon dashi powder
- 8 cups water
- ½ cup mirin
- 2 tablespoons light color soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 packages assorted fish cakes (I used 1 pink kamaboko, 1 hanpen, 1 chikuwa)
- Hot mustard (for serving)
First prep your ingredients:
- Cut the tofu in half on the longer side. Then cut across the tofu in five even sized slices. You will yield 10 pieces. Press the tofu gently between sheets of paper towels to eliminate some of the water.
- Heat a deep pan with about ½ inch of oil over medium high heat for about 4-5 minutes. (If you use a small pan, you will have to fry in batches.) Test a piece of tofu by dipping a piece into the oil. It should immediately start to bubble around the tofu. If not, continue heating the oil for several more minutes.
- Put the tofu into the pan and cook for 3½ minutes. Flip over one piece. It should be golden brown and crusty looking. If not, continue frying for another minute. Flip the tofu pieces over and continue frying for another 3½ minutes. Drain the tofu on paper towels and set aside.
- Peel the daikon radish and then cut into thick 1 ½ inch slices. Then cut the largest daikon slices in half so you have thick semi circles. Set aside.
- Open and rinse the package of konnyaku. Then starting at one corner, make thin (about ⅛”) shallow cuts diagonally across the surface of the konnyaku.
- Flip the konnyaku over and do the same time so that both sides have shallow slits. Then cut the konyaku into 4 pieces. Set aside.
Now prepare the chicken:
- Cut the breasts and wings off in one piece by sliding the knife along one side of the breast bone. Cut through the joint by the top of the wing and you should be able to pull off the breast and wing in one piece. Then repeat on the other side.
- Then pop the joint at the top of the thigh where it meets the body. Take your knife and cut through that joint. Repeat on the other side.
- Cut the breast and wing into 2 pieces. And cut through the joint between the drumstick and the thigh. You should have 8 pieces in total. Set aside, saving the carcass.
Prepare the Broth:
- Fill a large pot (one that is about 6 quarts in size) with water, add the kombu, dashi powder, soy sauce, mirin, and chicken carcass.
- Bring the pot to a simmer over high heat and then lower to medium high. Skim the surface for foam and impurities. Let the chicken carcass cook with a covered lid for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and skim again.
- Add the daikon and konyakku and bring to a simmer, again skimming the surface of impurities. Lower the heat to medium low and cover. Gently simmer for 40 mins., adjusting the heat if necessary.
- Add the chicken and the boiled eggs and simmer for 15 minutes. Then add the fried tofu and the fish cakes. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Check for seasoning and adjust with a little more salt if needed.
- Take the Kombu out and let it cool for 10 minutes until it’s cool enough to handle. Cut the kombu into 1 inch strips and then tie the kombu pieces into knots. Put the kombu back in the stew.
- Serve immediately with hot mustard on the side.
*Oden keeps for a couple of days but it is very rich in protein which spoils easily, so be sure to cool it down quickly and keep it refrigerated until ready to eat. Use a clean utensil, no fingers, when portioning.
Keywords: oden, fish cake stew, japanese