Friday, December 30, 2011

Oden おでん

 My mother is a great cook – not that I am biased or anything – and she makes a lot of great dishes; but one of my favorite dishes of hers is her oden.

Oden (おでん) is a Japanese winter dish consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku, and processed fish cakes stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth. 

Ingredients vary according to region and between each household.  Karashi (Japanese mustard) is often used as a condiment.

Oden was originally what is now commonly called misodengaku or simply dengaku; konnyaku or tofu was boiled and one ate them with miso. Later, instead of using miso, ingredients were cooked in dashi and oden became popular.

Oden is often sold from food carts, and most Japanese convenience stores like 7-11 or Lawson  have simmering oden pots in winter. Many different kinds of oden are sold, with single-ingredient varieties as cheap as 100 yen.

Oden is a very personal dish and there are many variations on the ingredients that one puts into their version of oden.

Popular ingredients

Some of the popular ingredients in oden are:

    Boiled eggs

    Chikuwabu - gluten tubes. Popular in Kantō, virtually unknown elsewhere.

    Sliced daikon

    Suji - beef tendons

    Ito konnyaku





    Kabocha - Japanese squash

    Cabbage roll


    Tsukune - fish or meat balls


    Tebichi - pig's trotters, only in Okinawa

    Tofu products:

        Ganmodoki - fried balls of tofu mixed with grated vegetables

        Atsuage - deep fried tofu

        Kinchaku (巾着, literally "pouch") - pouches of thin deep fried tofu (aburaage) filled with mochi and other ingredients, with the top tied with kanpyō. Also referred to as fukuro (, literally "bag").

       Seared Tofu - mainly in Kansai versions

    Surimi (fish paste) products: - most of them are already deep fried before simmering.

        Bakudan - boiled egg wrapped in surimi

        Chikuwa - thick tubes of surimi

        Gobomaki - boiled gobo (burdock root) wrapped in surimi


        Ikamaki - squid wrapped in surimi

        wiener-maki, or sausage-maki - wiener sausage wrapped in surimi


        Shinjoage - fried seafood paste

Regional variations

In Nagoya, it may be called Kantō-ni (関東煮) and soy sauce is used as a dipping sauce. 

Miso oden is simmered in hatcho-miso broth, which is lightly sweet taste. Konnyaku and tofu are common ingredients.

In Kansai area they are sometimes called Kantō-daki (関東煮 or 関東炊き) and tend to be stronger flavoured than the lighter Kantō version.

Oden in Shizuoka use a dark colored broth flavoured with beef stock and dark soy sauce, and all ingredients are skewered. Dried and ground fish (sardine, mackerel, or katsuobushi) and aonori powder (edible seaweed) are sprinkled on top before eating.

Udon restaurants in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku almost always offer oden as a side dish, to be eaten with sweet miso while waiting for the udon.

In Taiwan, the dish is called Heilun/Olun (黑輪) in the Taiwanese language. Besides the more traditional ingredients, olen also uses many local ingredients, such as pork meatballs and blood puddings. 

More recently, oden is offered in convenience stores and is known as guandongzhu (Kuantung-chu; 關東煮) in Mandarin.

In Korea, Odaeng (오댕) is a street food that's sold from small carts and is served with a spicy soup. It's very common on the streets of Korea and there are many restaurants that have it on their menu or specialize in it.

Of course, my favorite is my mother's and here is my first bowl from last night - my first of many...oden is something I can just eat and eat!!

As we say in Japan - Oishii!!  おいしい!!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hot Seat!

There is nothing like the feeling of sitting on a warm, heated toilet seat with a soft fuzzy cover - one of the first signs that remind me that I am back home at my mother's home in Japan.

What in the world am I talking about, you ask?  I am talking about the Japanese toilet, of course!

Toilets in Japan aren’t really talked about in polite conversation, however, understanding the Japanese toilet is an important thing if you plan on visiting Japan for any duration.

The Japanese toilet can be one that causes a lot of issues for the non-Japanese visitor.  If you don’t know what you are doing, it can be quite embarrassing and frustrating.  How hard can it be to use a toilet in Japan, you ask? Well – it can be quite a challenge to the uninformed.

There are basically two types of Japanese toilets, the low-tech and the high-tech.

The low-tech version is relatively simple, what is normally called a ‘squat toilet’ and there are variations of it around the globe. A squat toilet (also known as an Arabic, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Iranian, Indian, Turkish toilet and more colorfully as a 'Nile Pan' is a toilet used by squatting over it rather than sitting upon it.

Since most public facilities such as schools, temples, and train stations are often equipped with only squat toilets, knowledge in its use is rather important if that is your only available facility. 

There are several types and variations of squat toilets, but they all consist essentially of a hole in the ground – at obviously, ground level.  My Japanese grandmother had a old fashioned traditional style house and she had an indoor squat toilet in her house.  It was pretty advanced when you think about it. It was essentially an outhouse inside her house – and it didn’t ever smell bad and I remember that a company came to pump it out regularly.  It never seemed odd to me in any way growing up, even though we had a traditional western-style toilet at home.   

I feel I should mention here that in Japan, the toilet and the bath are always separate rooms in a house and never situated together.

In Japanese culture, there is a tendency to separate areas into clean and unclean, and the contact between these areas is minimized. For example, the inside of the house is considered a clean area, whereas the outside of the house is considered unclean.

To keep the two areas separated, shoes are taken off before entering the house so that the unclean shoes do not touch the clean area inside of the house.

Historically, toilets were located outside of the house, and shoes were worn for a trip to the toilet. Nowadays, the toilet is almost always inside the home and hygienic conditions have improved significantly, but the toilet is still considered an unclean area, so to minimize contact between the unclean toilet floor and the clean floor in the rest of the house, many private homes and also some public toilets have toilet slippers (トイレスリッパ toire surippa) in front of the toilet door that should be used when in the toilet and removed right after leaving the toilet.

This also indicates if the toilet is in use.  A frequent mistake that foreigners make is to forget to take off the toilet slippers after a visit to the restroom, and then use these in the non-toilet areas, hence mixing the clean and unclean areas.

I digress…

While very simple in design, concept and use, the squat toilet, as I mentioned earlier; can be a tricky affair for the inexperienced.  

The squat toilet in its most common form in Japan is as a porcelain slipper shaped fixture that is affixed to the floor, sometimes on a raised single step.

To use it, you simply squat over it, do your business and then flush.  Simple, right?

Well there is definitely a method to its use and for anyone wearing pants, there is the question of where the pants go – plenty of 'gaijin' or foreigners in Japan have had some bad experiences with this toilet.

Once can always take off their pants completely but that is quite inconvenient and oftentimes there will be no place to put your removed pants in the toilet space.

The trick is to keep them around your ankles and knees and out of harm's way...

Luckily, the Japanese like to provide pictures and instructions.

There are a lot of videos on YouTube that show the use of the squat toilet but here is one I thought was pretty good.

As challenging as the low-tech squat toilet is for some, the high-tech toilet which probably is in about 80-90 percent of Japanese homes.

The modern toilet commonly known in Japanese as Washlet (ウォシュレット Woshuretto) is one of the most advanced types of toilet worldwide, showing a dazzling array of features.

The Toto product Washlet Zoe is listed in Guinness World Records as the world's most sophisticated toilet with seven functions. However, as the model was introduced in 1997, it is now likely to be inferior to the latest model by Toto in 2011-2012. The idea for the washlet came from abroad, and the first toilet seat with integrated bidet was produced in the United States in 1964 but interestingly, it never became popular in the US.

The age of the high-tech toilet in Japan started in 1980 with the introduction of the Washlet G Series by Toto, and since then the product name washlet has been used to refer to all types of Japanese high-tech toilets.

While the toilet looks like a Western-style toilet at first glance, there are numerous additional features—such as blow dryer, seat heating, massage options, water jet adjustments, automatic lid opening, automatic flushing, wireless control panel, room heating and air conditioning for the room—included either as part of the toilet or in the seat.

These features can be accessed by an (often wireless) control panel attached to the seat or mounted on a nearby wall.

There are humorous reports of foreigners using a toilet, and randomly pressing buttons on the control panel either out of curiosity or in search for the flushing control, and suddenly to their horror receiving a jet of water directed at their genitals or anus.

As the water jet continues for a few seconds after they jump up, they also get themselves or the bathroom wet.

Many Japanese toilets now feature pressure sensitive seats that automatically shut off the bidet when the person gets up.

In any case, I think that the washlet toilet is an awesome thing and they are available in the US via Toto USA at just look under washlet.

If you decide to visit Japan, then make sure you give the washlet a try -I am sure it's one 'hot seat' you'll come to love!!

Monday, December 26, 2011

359 Days

It has been about 359 days since I posted anything to my blog.  It has been a busy, eventful year, and after moving to a new house in September 2010, finishing my master's degree in December 2010 and having to teach a class at Chestnut Hill College from January 2011 to April 2011, I decided to just take some time off.  359 days later and the day before I make my annual trip to Japan to spend New Year's with my family, I think it's time to start blogging again.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years in Japan

It is New Year’s Day here in Japan and it is a beautiful day, sunny and about 10 degrees Celsius which is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

We celebrated a traditional family New Year and now are just relaxing – and constantly eating LOL!

Yesterday was what we call “Omisoka”.

This is the day of New Year’s Eve. Since the New Year is the biggest event in Japan, people celebrate the Eve as well. People work so hard to prepare the New Year around one or two weeks such as cleaning (like spring cleaning in here) and shopping. 

The reason people do the cleaning in the middle of winter is to get rid of the dirt and old of the passing year and to welcome the New Year with a fresh and serene mind. Everyone tries to finish up all the work of the year, pay off debts and just overall close out the year as much as possible.

Mama spent the morning making the last of the New Year’s special dishes called Osechi-ryori.

"Osechi ryori" is what most people in Japan eat at the beginning of the New Year. Regardless of how Japanese restaurants you go to anywhere in the world, osechi isn't something you'll ever find on a Japanese menu. Its time and place are the first few days in January, in the Japanese home.

Osechi ryori was originally a way for housewives (and their families) to survive the first several days of the New Year, when stores throughout Japan were closed. The foods that make up osechi can be prepared in advance and then sit out in a cool area for a few days without spoiling. Most often everything is placed in compartmentalized lacquer boxes called jubako that are stacked in layers.

Today most osechi is purchased - either at department stores or at local supermarkets. Prices start at under Y10,000 (for portions that will feed a few people for at least three days), but it's also possible to spend literally a hundred times that amount (the equivalent of US $10,000). The high-end osechi food is made by famous chefs (or more likely, famous restaurants), and - typical of Japanese custom - is limited in production. High-priced department stores like Takashimaya start taking orders for osechi in late October, and often the most popular varieties sell out within a few days.

Mama took two layers of her jubako to a local shop a few days prior and then sent Papa to pick it up about 10:00 AM.  She took a third layer and filled it with special dishes she made – she even made kuromame for the first time in her 80 years (with no recipe) and they are delicious!

Many of the food items represent prosperity, good fortune and health. The basic components are the same, but regional differences are reflected in the sweetness or saltiness of the flavoring and the use of local ingredients.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at osechi is that presentation is very important. There is a pleasing balance of colors. What may be harder to notice, though, is the efficiency with which each layer is packed. The more elaborate osechi will have vegetables arranged in ornate designs, representing seasonal shapes such as pine cones and plum flowers.

Osechi-ryori components:

Kazunoko (herring roe) - tiny yellow fish eggs. Like the tobiko you often find at sushi restaurants, kazunoko have a bite or crunch to them, however, the eggs are not loose. They are marinated in a broth of dashi, sake and soy sauce.

Kuromame (black beans) are soft and quite sweet, although you may notice a bit of soy sauce flavoring.

Gomame (also known as tazukuri) are small sardines that have been dried and then finished in a sweet sauce of sugar, mirin, soy sauce and sake. These are rich in calcium and yes, you can eat the head.

Kombumaki are nothing more than the umami-rich kombu rolled tightly and bound shut with a ribbon of gourd strip (kampyo). Often kombumaki are stuffed with salmon. This is also cooked slowly in dashi, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce.

Datemaki looks like the tamago-yaki (egg custard) you often find in a bento box, but here it's made with a fish paste and has a sponge-like texture. It's quite sweet.
Sweet potatoes and chestnuts are the base of kurikinton, which can look something like yellow mashed potatoes.

Kamaboko, a dense cake of fish paste, is red (or pink) and white (traditional New Year's colors). You can often find thin slices of this on your soba.

Another red-and-white food you'll find is called namasu - typically daikon and carrots pickled in vinegar.
For vegetables, look for gobo (burdock root), often dressed with sesame. Also lotus root, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and pea pods.

Konnyaku (devil's-tongue starch) and fu (wheat gluten) will also be sprinkled throughout the stacked boxes.

For seafood, shrimp (representing long life) and sea bream (for auspicious fortune) are most typical.

My brother Jun and his wife Akemi came over about 2:30 and we sat down to our Omisoka feast!

There was the osechi-ryori, a huge pot of Oden and a number of other assorted dishes – all pretty much made by Mama herself in the morning.

After a relaxed afternoon and un-ending food and drink, Jun and Akemi left – since Jun has to work at 4:00 AM New Year’s Day.

We then sat and watched NHK’s Kōhaku Uta Gassen or Red and White Singing Competition – which is a New Year’s tradition here.  A men (white team) against the women (red team) singing competition of famous singers from all genres of Japanese music which ends and declares a winner about a half-hour before the New Year so people can get to the shrines.  This year, the white team won again for the 6th year running.

We then bundled up and Mama, Papa and I walked the half block to the neighborhood shrine to say our prayers for the New Year.

The shrine queue went pretty quickly and once at the shrine, we rang the bell, threw in an offering and said a quick prayer before moving on to get the free miso dengaku and a cup of the icy cold daru sake and/or piping hot amazake.  We all just went with the hot amazake – so yummy and warm!!

Once we got home, Papa made the toshi-koshi noodles – to bridge the old year into the new and to help invite prosperity for the coming year. Toshikoshi-soba is traditionally a bowl of hot brown buckwheat noodles in broth but people often use any favorite noodle like ramen or udon as well. 

The noodle is a homophone for a word that means “being close” and therefore signifies the approach of the New Year.

A lot of people eat Toshikoshi-soba at night and stay up till midnight to listen to the 108 chimes of a nearby temple bell. The 108 chimes called Joya-no-kane, rings out the old year and rings in the New Year. It is supposed to release people from the 108 worldly sins.


This is the celebration of the New Year and is the most important holiday in Japan. Entrances are decorated with a Shimekezari in the days before the New Year. A Shimekazari is a twisted straw rope with fern leaves, an orange and other items of good omen. Family gather to their hometown and spend the time together. People celebrate the New Year with sweet sake called Toso, a soup called Ozoni and Osechi-ryori during the holiday.


A common New Year decoration that means literally mirror rice cake, is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration. It usually consists of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a daidai (a Japanese bitter orange) with an attached leaf on top.

In addition, it may have a sheet of konbu and a skewer of dried persimmons under the mochi. It sits on a stand called a sanpō, over a sheet called a shihōbeni, which is supposed to ward off fires from the house for the following years. Sheets of paper called gohei, folded into lightning shapes similar to those seen on sumo wrestler's belts are also attached.


This is the first sunrise of the year. Before sunrise on January 1, people often drive to the coast or climb a mountain so that they can see the first sunrise of the New Year


The shrines all over Japan are packed with people from the New Year’s Day to January 3rd.  People go to shrine to pray for safety, happiness and long lives of the family. A lot of people are dressed up with their Kimono and buy a good luck talisman called Omamori. It is kept as a protection from illness, accidents and disasters.