Warming up with oden

"Why do you like oden so much?" I asked my Malaysian friend who lives in Japan.

"A substitute for yong tau foo," she replied.

Like her, I crave Malaysian food, too. So I understood what she thought of oden, although I don't fancy it as much as she does. Both oden and yong tau foo have something in common - most of the ingredients are made from fish paste.

Oden is a Japanese-style hotchpotch comprising assorted processed fish cakes, boiled eggs, konnyaku (konjac), sliced radish, konbu (kelp) and ganmodoki (deep fried tofu fritters) which are stewed together in a light, soy-flavoured dashi (fish stock).

Oden is usually served with karashi (Japanese mustard) in the Kanto region, but I like to eat it with hoisin sauce (a substitute for sweet bean sauce) and chilly sauce. It makes me feel as if I am eating yong tau foo.

I wouldn't take oden in the sultry summer. It is a popular winter dish. Oden comes to the rescue when I want a quick, hot meal on a frosty day.

You can buy steaming hot oden from food carts. And in winter, many convenience stores offer them, too. Oden is also available at oden-ya (shops that serve oden with alcoholic drinks and small seasonal side dishes). In places like Akibahara and Tsukuba, some vending machines dispense canned oden. Inside each can is a wooden skewer for serving the contents. For home-made oden, you can get packed oden sets from the supermarkets.

Most of the main ingredients are store-bought because they are time-consuming to make from scratch. Cooking oden is easy as the store-bought oden sets generally come with a small packet of concentrated dashi and a piece of cooked konbu (tied in a decorative knot). Just boil the stock with some water to make the soup. For an oden set that comes with ready-cooked soup, all you need is to microwave it.

The common ingredients of oden are processed fish balls and fish cakes which are steamed, grilled or deep-fried. Ready-made oden sets often include mochi kinchaku (deep fried soya bean curd pouches filled with glutinous rice cakes).

Oden is a versatile dish. You can assemble your own oden ingredients with individual items and use the ready-made stock or make your own stock. You can also supplement the packed oden set with more ingredients or some other ingredients. These ingredients are sold in packets at the refrigerated food section in stores.

Quenelle and various kinds of fish balls and fish cakes are my favourite ingredients. Some people would add in carrots, potatoes, shiitake, octopus, shirataki (konjac noodles) and even sausages.

Like most people, I always add hard-boiled eggs (one for each person) into oden. To save time, I wash the eggs and boil them with sliced radish in a big pot. Then I remove the cooked eggs to peel off the shells and return them to the pot to simmer with the radish and oden set. While it is simmering, I would prepare a side dish of green vegetables to go with it.

The ingredients, soup stock and condiments for oden vary according to region and household. I was surprised when my Japanese friend from Kagawa prefecture in Shikoku told me that back home she would put cooked beef tendons into oden and eat oden with sweet miso sauce.

Conversely, she was astounded when she first saw chikuwabu selling at stores in Yokohama and Tokyo. She had never used this optional ingredient in oden before.

I once mistook chikuwabu for chikuwa since both are tube-shaped and have quite similar names. However, chikuwabu is made from wheat flour whereas chikuwa uses fish paste. I mistakenly bought chikuwabu to supplement my oden set. Well, imagine my astonishment when I chewed on a slice of chikuwabu. Why, it tasted nothing like chikuwa at all! It was simply a plain flour dumpling. Some Japanese might like it, but no thanks for me!

Recently, we have been experiencing cold snaps. On one frigid day, while the rest of us ladies ate cold home-made obento (boxed lunch) after our prayer meeting in church, a friend had a cup of piping hot oden. She had bought it from a convenience store on her way back to church after sending a church member home. Oh, how we drooled over her oden during lunch!

Sarah Mori, a Malaysian married to a Japanese, resides in Japan.