The slow cooker is a useful kitchen tool for preparing a number of ethnic dishes that will benefit from long, slow cooking.
I use my slow cooker to make carnitas – spicy, tender bites of pork for stuffing tacos and for Indian Mulligatawny Stew. It is perfect for making a rustic Belgian Carbonnade of Beef – savory beef and onions braised in beer.
The slow cooker seems to have been created especially for one Japanese dish called Oden, an unusual fish cake stew. The word nabe means ‘pot’. Nabemono is a category of one-pot simmered dishes that are standard winter fare.
For me, Oden is a comfort food that brings back memories of the times I spent in Japan during the autumn and winter. Around November, when the weather is quite cold, the yaitai appear (portable street stalls) and begin to hawk the simmering hot stew.
The street stalls may even have a few seats that quixotically beckon the salaryman to stop and enjoy a brief respite after a hectic day. The customer picks his favorite ingredients from the huge pot and receives them in a shallow bowl moistened with broth. Spicy-hot mustard is offered on the side and a fortifying cup of warm sakÃ©.
The nabe dish Oden is the ‘flavor of Japan’. The pot is a treasure chest filled with large, tasty pieces of foods bobbing in broth. Beside a variety of delicious grilled, steamed or fried fish cakes, the stew includes ingredients like: fried tofu, chicken or beef, daikon radish, boiled eggs, meatballs and jellylike konnyaku. The combination of ingredients depends upon availability and the whim of the cook.
When simmered gently for hours in a flavorful broth, the foods absorb all the surrounding flavors. Oden fans appreciate the variety of ingredients, the subtle flavors and the contrasting, often chewy, resilient textures.
Smaller pieces of food might be laced on short skewers – a holdover from the origins of this dish, which began in old Edo ( 1180 to 1868) as grilled, skewered pieces of tofu spread with miso paste (dengaku).
The association comes from an ancient dance on stilts performed during the rice planting season. The colors of the performer’s costumes were reminiscent of grilled tofu and miso paste. As the dish evolved, other ingredients were added, and eventually, it became a stew.
There are regional variations of Oden throughout Japan. Miso Oden is a favorite dish in Aichi Prefecture near Japan’s center. The simmered ingredients are coated with a miso sauce before being eaten. In the southern Kansai region, the focus is on the broth, which is subtle yet complex. It was in this area of Japan that the broth-base version of Oden first became popular.
When writing the cookbook, Fondues & Hot Pots, I experimented with my version of Oden and prepared it in a number of different pots. I find the slow cooker very convenient to use since the food requires little attention as it cooks. The pot won’t overheat the kitchen and there is little danger of the food drying out or overcooking. I use a large oval six-quart size but if you own a smaller slow cooker, reduce the amount of ingredients to fit.
Lengthy cooking with moist, wrap-around heat in the tightly covered pot creates enough steam to destroy bacteria, making the foods safe for eating. The slow cooker is not an ideal method for cooking fish, but Japanese fish cakes are designed for long, slow simmering, making them a perfect candidate. You could add seafood such as whole, raw shrimp about 40 minutes or so before the dish is served.
Some Japanese specialty restaurants keep giant Oden pots simmering day and night, year after year. You can find Oden at a Japanese pub (izakaya), at festivals or at the local ‘Kombini’ (convenience store); the food items arranged in an artful display, simmering in a shallow pot.
You will find the Oden recipe from my cookbook plus recipes for the broth, fried tofu and dipping sauce in a number of other posts. Go to the Category, Japanese Cooking and Culture and take a look around. The broth is under a post, Dashi-Japan’s Soup Stock. Read the post, Glossary of Ingredients for Oden for a better understanding of what goes into the dish. Other useful posts to refer to are the Peanut-Orange Miso Sauce and Fried Tofu Wedges.
Read Allison Askins’ article An Unwatched Pot in The State newspaper, Wednesday, October 5, 2005. ]]>