This is a vegetarian version of the classic Japanese stew that’s normally made from meat, seafood, vegetables and tofu. It is ubiquitous in Japan during winter months and sold everywhere from street stalls to smart shops, where there might be a pot bubbling away behind the counter. I’m surprised it’s not better known in the West – or, at least, it is virtually unknown in the UK.
Don’t be intimidated by the ingredients, as the stew itself is simple to cook. Admittedly, it is time-consuming and involves several components, so a leisurely weekend would be the best time to prepare it. To cut down on the cooking time, you can use prepared mustard paste (available in little tins or tubes in Japanese shops); and, instead of making your own dashi, use mildly flavoured vegetable stock or instant vegetarian dashi powder (though the latter is not easy to find – you’ll have to make sure it doesn’t contain bonito fish flakes).
A very simple version of dashi can be made from soaking dried shiitake and kombu, and using the strained soaking water as stock. However, if you make Japanese food – or even only miso soup – regularly, it is a good idea to make your own dashi in large quantities and freeze it in ice cube trays for future use. Which is why I am giving a recipe here.
Konnyaku is speckled grey, gelatinous root of the ‘devils tongue’ plant. It is believed to be extremely low in calories, and regularly used by the Japanese for detoxing. Numerous health benefits are associated with it.
All the specialist ingredients can be bought from Japanese shops, but if you can’t find them, substitute vegetables such as baby turnips, baby pak choi, sweet potatoes, Japanese kabocha squash, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, etc. Stick to oriental roots, starches, greens or mushrooms as much as you can (rather than using, say, bell peppers, courgettes, etc). Indeed, aburage, fu, and konnyaku are used more for texture than flavour. You can make a simplified version of this dish using only two or three ingredients, and it will still taste good.
Oden is a unique combination of hearty and filling, yet light at the same time. It can be eaten on its own, or with plain white rice and pale pink Japanese ginger pickle. It should always be eaten with hot mustard, which is essential for this dish (it just won’t taste the same without it).
Here in the UK, the weather continues to be absolutely freezing – with snowfall and sub-zero temperatures all around – so the combination of ginger and mustard would certainly help clear the sinuses! Serves 4.
For the mustard condiment:
4 tablespoons Japanese (or English) mustard powder
Approx 12 tablespoons cold water
For the vegetarian dashi:
Approx 10-inch piece kombu (kelp) seaweed
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 pints/ 2 litres cold water
1 oz/ 25g tororo-kombu seaweed (or use nori if you can’t find it)
4 tablespoons sake (rice wine)
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
½ teaspoon sugar
5 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
For the stew:
6 sheets aburage (flat sheets of fried tofu), or fu (small pieces of dried gluten)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 oz/ 250g firm tofu, drained on kitchen paper and cut into triangles
3 pints/ 1.5 litres vegetarian dashi (as above)
4 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
4 tablespoons mirin
½ teaspoon sugar
2-inch piece kombu
2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced chunkily
8oz/ 200g daikon radish, peeled and sliced chunkily
8oz/ 200g konnyaku, cut into triangles (similar to the tofu)
6 oz/ 150g fresh or prepared lotus root, sliced horizontally
4 large hardboiled eggs, shelled and left whole
1. Prepare the mustard condiment first. Combine the mustard powder with water, making sure that the consistency is thinner than you would like (as it will gradually thicken). Set aside.
2. Next make the dashi. Clean the kombu with dry kitchen paper to remove any grit, but do not wash otherwise it will lose its flavour. Snip into large pieces with scissors.
3. Steep the kombu and dried mushrooms in a saucepan of water, and set aside for 3 or 4 hours.
4. Gently heat the saucepan until the liquid reaches just below the boiling point. Remove the kombu and discard.
5. Add tororo-kombu to the pan, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
6. Add the remaining dashi ingredients. Again bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for a further 2 minutes.
7. Drain through a sieve, and discard the seaweed and mushrooms. Set the dashi aside. It should have a pure, clean taste.
8. Now make the stew. If using the aburage sheets, steep them briefly in boiling water to remove excess liquid. Rinse in cold water, squeeze between the palm of your hands, drain, and cut into 1-inch squares.
9. Heat the oil in a small wok, and fry the tofu triangles until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
10. Heat the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and kombu in a large saucepan, and bring to the boil. Add potatoes and carrots, and bring to the boil again. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes until almost tender.
11. Add the daikon radish, konnyaku, and lotus root, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
12. Add tofu, aburage (or around 16 pieces of fu), hardboiled eggs and salt, and simmer for 5 minutes. Check each vegetable for doneness, and adjust the seasoning.
13. Remove the piece of kombu and discard. Carefully lift out each egg, cut it in half, and place the halved eggs back into the stew.
14. Ladle the oden into individual bowls, and serve with small quantities of hot mustard.