October 20th, 2010
Oden, such a humble dish, yet it seems to have a polarizing effect; you either love it or hate it. I am firmly in the pro-oden camp. I love the heady aroma of dashi with base-notes of cabbage, which emanate from percolating oden pots chock full of daikon, egg, tofu and sundry fish by-products. Mmm...
I was first initiated into the joys of oden while living in South Korea, where odeng (오댕) is street food eaten cheek by jowl with strangers from little carts, or out the back of a battered Hyundai ute. In the brutal -25C winters, a hot snack of skewered fish cake dipped (and invariably double-dipped) into the communal bowl of chili spiked soy sauce, along with a paper cup filled chaser of murky dashi broth, was literally bliss on a stick. Given this humble introduction to the dish, it is of little surprise that I am no snob when it come to oden; a styrofoam cup of insipid 7-Eleven oden is a-okay with me - a sentiment that makes most foodies recoil in horror.
Aware that a re-education was needed, I took it upon myself to investigate the finer oden fare available throughout the country, along with the differences in regional preparations. With this mission in mind, I chose Oden Kappo Hide, which specialises in Kansai-style oden, as my starting point. Located amongst the garish love hotels of Maruyama, Shibuya, Hide is a throw back to the Showa-era, before neon and instant sexual gratification took over the area. The shop was originally a teahouse where customers were entertained by geisha trained in the art of dance and witty conversation. Post-war, with clientele declining, the shop had to diversify to survive; the front parlour was turned into a small kitchen enclosed by a tiny 8 seat counter, with the tatami rooms, at the rear, providing seating for larger groups.
Stepping over the threshold, we were warmly welcomed by our kimono-clad hostess and, amongst a flurry of apologies for the cramped space, squeezed into our perches at the counter.
The focal point of the kitchen is the master's pot, which bubbled away enticingly before us. Hide's chef is obviously very house proud, as his stainless steel pot was immaculately clean with each ingredient neatly ordered into compartments. Throughout the evening I marvelled at his ability to multi-task; preparing the various fresh, grilled and fried dishes with the efficiency that comes with years of practice, all the while keeping a keen eye on his oden pot, which he tended to with utter devotion.
However, there were some appetizers to get through before we could hit the main attraction. We began our meal with an otooshi of goma-tofu, which is always something of a textual delight, washed down with a bottle of Asahi.
There is no menu as such, rather, wooden plagues with the names of food and drinks are hung on the wall behind the chef. Big West immediately spied 'shirako' listed amongst them and, to my chagrin, ordered up a plate for us. While he had been successful in converting me to the joys of ankimo, I was less enamoured with the prospect of boiled sacks of fish semen. However, in the name of research, I tried a bit, and concurred that it was, err... creamy.
Relief came in the form of freshly boiled asparagus, which I chomped on merrily as Big West dispensed with the fishy love bags.
Things got back on track with the arrival of the pretty sashimi-moriawase of katsuo, hotate (scallop) and shako (mantis shrimp). It was my first encounter with shako, a purple-backed crustacean, and I must say that I was underwhelmed; the flavour was unremarkable and I found the texture oddly chalky.
Hide has a limited range of drinks on offer: beer, shochu, umeshu and a couple of 500ml bottles of honjozo. The reason for this, the hostess explained, is because they have such a small turnover of of seats that they can't afford to keep stock of the larger bottles of sake that I they are required to order from suppliers. Fair enough. We made do with a bottle of Urakasumi (honjozo... in hindsight, we should have just stuck to beer.
To go with the sake, I ordered these little guys: hatahata (sandfish) from Akita. Dried overnight, then grilled, the flesh was firm and chewy - in a good way - and the meat was packed with salty, umami flavour. A great little drinking snack.
Now for the main event. We gave up on referring to the wooden plaques for the names of oden offerings, and instead went with the master's (non-meat) recommendations: (Clockwise from left) Tofu with a dollop of chunky miso, Tokyo age ('Tokyo' fried tofu), daikon (underneath the age) and an egg. All were delicious and cooked to perfection. I was interested to note that it was served without the smear of karashi (hot mustard) that usually accompanies oden. Upon tasting the rich flavour that the dashi had imparted on the ingredients, it was obvious why - it was completely unnecessary. The standout of our selection was the Tokyo age, which had been marinated overnight in dark Kanto soy sauce before being fried and then simmered in the pot. Yum!
Plates cleaned, it was time to dip back into the pot for more. "Tsumire, please!" "Would you like it from the pot or freshly made?" came the master's reply. Despite the 15 minute wait for it to be prepared, we opted for the later, and our patience paid dividends; the minced sardine meat was studded with yuzu peel, which gave a wonderful citrus flavour to the tsumire and its accompanying broth. Stunning!
It was an enjoyable evening, facilitated by the charming service our hostess, who utilized her geisha training to keep everyone engaged and amused. By the look of the steady stream of couples that replenished the seats at the counter, the food and service have certainly made Hide a popular place for a certain demographic: Middle-aged salarymen and the women who may, or may not, be their wives.
It is worth noting that the prime counter seats can't be reserved, and I am told that they are usually full from 5pm until closing, so it pays to call ahead to be assured a place. That said, from the peals of laughter that could be heard emanating from the rear rooms, all clients seem to be well catered to.
With our tummies filled (bloated) with the warmth of good food, and our desire for better drinks urging us onwards, we settled up and headed into the cacophony of Shibuya. As we headed down the street, congratulating ourselves on stumbling upon such a hidden gem, I turned and saw that our hostess was still in a deep bow, warmly farewelling us and inviting us to come again. It really was one of those, "Only in Japan" moments.