It’s December, and Christmas music is playing in the bustling shopping arcades of Osaka. You’ll see long lines of people placing an order for a Christmas fried chicken dinner at a certain international fast food chain whose mascot is a colonel. You’ll hear locals mumbling “寒いですね/Samui desu ne” (It’s cold.) to 30F weather and holding a “懐炉/kairo” or hand warmer. This is when you know it is winter in Japan.
Winters in Japan are relatively cool compared to North America, but the humidity will give you terrible colds and coughs. It will leave you unenergetic, unusually tired, and not wanting to eat much which is a worse sickness waiting to happen. So how do the Japanese cure a cold or a cough? Well, every culture has a magical soup or stew that warms the body and soul. For the Japanese, it is oden.
Oden (おでん) is a stew—filled with fish cakes and other ingredients—to replenish the body with essential vitamins and nutrients. The soup starts with dashi which is a stock made from dried kelp and bonito flakes. Dashi is rich with iron which strengthens the immune system. Daikon is added to give spice but also vitamin C to fight off the cold. Konnyaku, a jelly like root, offers fiber and minerals to balance the body. Root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, give heartiness to the soup. Lastly, the fish cakes and tofu serve as healthier and lighter protein alternatives to beef and chicken which may be rough for one’s stomach.
You can get oden at any “コンビニ/konbini” (convenience store) in Japan for a couple of hundred yen, but it’ll lack the trimmings. It’s best to go to an oden-ya like the one I went to in Nishinomiya. A coworker of mine had noticed that my cold had been lingering way too long, so she brought me and a couple of our friends to a place called Odenden. It was an intimate izakaya where the décor were a bunch of old jazz records and wine and sake bottles. She ordered an array of oden and tako meshi which is mixed sticky rice with octopus. It was a Friday night, so we had to celebrate the end of the work week with umeshuu soda. The oden hit the spot, and the laughs and great conversation melted some of my homesickness away.
An ocean away from my second home, I make oden to remind me of my fondest memories of Japan and to cure the inevitable winter blues in Chicago. Sometimes, it takes a hot bowl of soup or stew to make you feel a little bit better whether it is physically or spiritually. Maybe, oden can become your new comfort food or something to cook with your loved ones this holiday season.
About the author and photographer: Hello everyone! My name is Ruby, and I am a native Chicagoan who has just returned from a year in Japan. I fell in love with the Japanese food culture when I began exploring the Kansai region during my time as an assistant language teacher for the JET Program. I’m proud to be a blogger for Kokoro Care Packages where I can share some tidbits about Japanese culture, food, and travel. I hope your care packages and reading the blog posts will inspire you to visit Japan one day.