A hearty bowl of oden to fight off the chillWinter isn’t complete without a hearty bowl of oden, the traditional Japanese hot pot of fish cakes served in broth.
In Korea, this dish (pronounced “odeng” here) was first popularized some decades ago in the port city of Busan. Since then, a few Korean restaurant chains have tried to make it a mainstream dish in Seoul, but failed; in the capital, for the most part, oden has been known as a cheap street food, sold in tents or in stalls.
But in recent months, there’s been a sudden proliferation of “oden bars” in Seoul, turning this dish into something of an exotic trend. Standing in the cold for a 500-won (50-cent) oden skewer is one thing, but enjoying high-end oden with warm sake in a Japanese-style bar is suddenly a rather chic way to ward off the cold.
Most of these new oden bars are explicitly Japanese in concept, with names like Hokkaido, Minami, Sapporo and Kansai; the interiors follow suit, mimicking traditional Japanese sake bars with their dark wood and paper lanterns. But one of the better known oden bars ― actually a franchise, with four locations in southern Seoul ― has a purely Korean name: Jeongdeunjip, roughly translated as “Sweet Home.”
It is located on Garosu-gil, the two-lane, north-south street that connects Apgujeong-dong and Sinsa-dong avenues in southern Seoul. With its stylish wine bars and cafes frequented by film buffs, art directors and fashion industry people, Garosu-gil at night exudes a charm not unlike that of Manhattan’s East Village.
I showed up at Jeongdeunjip without a reservation Monday night, and was asked to come back later; when I returned with friends after 11 p.m., the place was still crammed with casual imbibers seated at the two wooden bars.
Jeongdeunjip, which seats about 35, opened less than a year ago. That’s not enough time for the scent of fish broth to have seeped into the wood, but the damp steam and the scent of smoke were appetizing; it was as though we were visiting a chalet in a remote Japanese village.
At the center of the main bar was a large vat of dark brown broth, divided into a dozen sections. Immersed in the steaming broth were long bamboo skewers, each bearing a plump oden morsel; there were nine types of oden, plus konnyaku (yam jellies), tteok (rice cakes), kamaboko (fish cakes) and hard-boiled eggs. Each skewer cost 1,000 won.
Upon sitting down, we didn’t waste a moment in ladling some of the hot soup into our bowls; we exhaled in unison, feeling our frozen bodies melt like snowmen in the April sun. Then we chose one skewer after another and dipped the oden into soy sauce spiked with mustard.
I couldn’t help comparing Jeong-deunjip to the decades-old oden bars I’ve visited in Tokyo. This soup certainly did not have the complexity ― almost the profundity ― of the generations-old recipes served there, but it was nice, warm and spicy. The fish cakes and other skewered ingredients, of various shapes and flavors, were all tender and tasty, much better than at most franchise oden bars in Seoul.
What I missed, though, was oden that’s cooked long enough in the deep, dark broth that the juices can really permeate it. Here in Korea, chefs dip the ingredients in the broth just long enough to warm them.
One of my friends said, “This is pretty good, but nothing beats the Minami oden in Busan. You know, even the Minami franchise in Seoul cannot make it quite the same as the Busan oden.” (I was later told that Jeongdeunjip’s oden is made by a supplier in Busan, and delivered to Seoul on a weekly basis).
To complete our late-night meal, we ordered hot sake (5,000 won for a small bottle) and their three best-selling side dishes: spicy chicken on skewers (2,000 won each), a plate of five roasted shishyamo, or smelt (5,000 won), and mushrooms (5,000 won). I noticed a few Korean dishes on the menu, such as dongchimi guksu (thin noodles in cold radish broth), aged kimchi and roasted tteok with sweet molasses sauce. The owner describes the bar’s concept as not so much Japanese as 1960s Korea. Besides Gekkeikan sake from Japan, they serve Cass beer at 4,000 won per bottle.
We finished up after midnight, full and radiant from the hot broth and sake. Soon we were out on the cold, windy streets again, but we felt better prepared for the Siberian chill of the winter to come.
English: Some spoken; none on menu.
Tel.: (02) 3443-1952.
Hours: 6 p.m.-3 a.m. nightly.
Location: Next to Sharon Florist on Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong.
Subway: Sinsa station, line No. 3, exit 7.
Parking: Available on the street.
Dress: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho