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"Himeji Oden": Chef Shuichi Kotani's Ultimate Comfort Tastes

*A short version of this article first appeared in The Gohan Society’s quarterly newsletter.

Every person has a favorite childhood dish that lives in their heart. In Japan, it’s called “ofukuro no aji,” literally “mother's taste.” In this chef interview series, we visit a prominent Japanese chef and explore their ultimate “ofukuro no aji.” This time, we chatted with Chef Shuichi Kotani, founder and CEO of Worldwide Soba-Inc., restaurant consultant, and most notably a “noodle master.”

Please tell us about your favorite childhood dishes that your mother cooked for you.

My absolute favorite childhood dish is “Himeji Oden.” Oden is a hearty hot pot dish enjoyed throughout Japan, but the Himeji Oden is the style unique to Himeji, my home town. So, I guess it’s not really my mother’s taste, but a regional taste. Unlike standard oden dishes in other regions, the Himeji style is made by simmering many different ingredients in a light dashi broth and it’s served with a strong sauce made with soy sauce, ginger and scallions. We add a variety of ingredients such as fish cakes, eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku (konjac or devil’s tongue), kombu kelp, kinchaku (deep fried tofu stuffed with mochi), and octopus, which are common in every region, but we also add gyu-suji (beef tendon). Every supermarket in the Himeji area has gyu-suji, skewered just for oden. In the Himeji area, we generally use light dashi made with bonito flakes, sardine, and flying fish, but I think most households use dashi powder for saving time.

Could you describe the Himeji region?

It’s a port city facing the ocean. I used to dive a meter or so deep and catch octopuses. I could catch sea cucumber by myself, too. It’s so easy, and it’s free! Hyogo Prefecture also has many mountains and rivers, producing tasty vegetables and grains like rice and soba (buckwheat). Since Hyogo’s somen (vermicelli-like thin wheat noodles) is so famous, soba is not as popular.

How often did the Kotanis eat oden?

Once or twice a week. As you know, oden can be enjoyed for a couple days and it gets more flavorful as the ingredients absorb the dashi. So, my mother always put it in my bento box. That made me tired of oden at that time. She was too busy to cook something elaborate and fancy, so she cooked it in a big pot and said, “There is oden in the kitchen. Help yourself.” I have a big brother, and oden was perfect to feed two hungry boys. There was no special season for the Kotanis’ oden. We enjoyed it all year round.

What are your favorite oden ingredients?

Gyu-suji is the number one. And konnyaku, egg, and kinchaku, these are the items my brother and I always fought for. But the number one item is gyu-suji, definitely. Since it’s gone so quickly, my mother kept extra gyu-suji skewers on the side for us to add them to the pot by ourselves.

Do you think that your oden experience influenced your current job? How did you become soba expert?

I don’t think it has had a direct influence. I did not start pursuing this career because I wanted to be a soba expert. Maybe I should tell you about the time when I was in junior high school. I was an athlete in track and field and I was constantly hungry. I always wanted to eat. Anything was fine with me as long as it made me full. I felt I would die if I didn’t eat. So I found the first part-time job at MacDonald’s near my house. I was so happy that I could eat tons of Big Mac! But it wasn’t enough for my stomach and I still wanted to eat. Then I found another job in a Chinese restaurant. The owner chef of the restaurant allowed me to cook anything, and I learned how to make dishes like fried chicken and fried rice there. So I think my first cooking experience was for survival. I learned formal cooking techniques much later.

Apprenticeships in the food industry are usually hard especially when people start training at younger ages. But for me, the apprenticeship was not that hard because I experienced much harder training when I competed for the high school track and field team. Actually, the apprenticeship in restaurants was wonderful because food was free and I even got paid.

What category did you specialize in the track and field team?

100 meter sprint. 10.9 seconds when I was 14.

Wow, so fast. Did you participate in the national competitions?

Yes. My best result was fourth at a national team selection competition. In junior high school, I could win without any practice, but once I joined the high school team, there were faster runners who were actually selected nationwide. The team actually consisted of top-class runners from all over Japan. Naturally, training was really tough, and I realized I could not win if I didn’t train really, really hard. But even when I tried harder, there were faster runners. In the end I failed.

That failure helped you survive the hard times during your apprenticeships easily.

I think so. If you work in restaurants, you don’t get drenched by rain. Restaurants are always warm, and you don’t have to train in the freezing weather. And you can eat three meals a day! [laugh]

When and how did you become interested in soba noodles?

After I moved to Tokyo for working. I noticed that Tokyo was full of clever, hard-working people, and the culinary industry was not an exception. Many talented people converged in areas like Shibuya, Roppongi, and Shinjuku. In Tokyo, I worked with non-Japanese people coming from various countries, and they worked really, really hard, more so than Japanese. Through the friendship with them, I became to think, “The country I am living is so small. I should step outside Japan.” But I also wondered, “What can I do to compete in the world?

What is my specialty?” At the time I was working at a kaiseki restaurant that served handmade tofu and soba. I really liked the idea of handcrafting soba and also its simplicity. Making soba in the morning is also like morning training for track and field!

I love a variety of cuisines and styles, but what I like to pursue in my career is a cuisine that celebrates the flavors of original ingredients. For example, French cuisine is beautiful to look at and rich and profound to savor, but I am not as interested in that style because we can’t really see and appreciate the tastes that the original ingredients boast. I am inclined and drawn to simple things. The 100-meter race in track and field is simple. Likewise, soba making, that uses just flour and water, is very simple. So, exploring soba making was a natural choice for me.

Simple oden and simple soba—that makes sense. By the way, oden is usually a winter dish, but you enjoy it all year around. What’s special about the Kotanis’ Himeji Oden?

What’s important is that it has all the ingredients! My mother’s oden is simply seasoned with dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. There is nothing special in it, but umami seeps out from all the ingredients, adding a depth to the dashi. There are so many tastes both from the land and sea. There's also a special sauce made with 5 parts soy sauce, 1 part grated ginger, and 1 part finely chopped scallion. This is the most important part of the recipe and was secretly handed down to me from my mother!

Founded in 1999 by Chef Shuichi Kotani, the organization aims to promote the beauty of soba buckwheat noodles to the world. Today, Chef Kotani's mission has grown to introduce Japanese cuisine internationally as well as to consult with restaurant businesses.

Himeji Oden

Ingredients: Serves 4

(Oden ingredients)

800g (1.75 lb) gyusuji

450g (1 lb) octopus, boiled 

400g (6-7 pieces) hardboiled egg

380g (0.85 lb) konnyaku

320g (0.7 lb) daikon radish

60g (2.1 oz) kombu kelp for oden (It’s pre-cut and pre-tied perfect for the dish.)

280g (0.6 lb) fish cakes

240g (0.5 lb) kinchaku

(Oden broth)

4 packages of 8-gram (1/2 tablespoon) dashi powder bag (You can use 2 tablespoons of dashi powder instead of small bags)

4L (1 gallon) water

100cc (3.5 oz) Higashimaru brand usukuchi soy sauce (Can be substituted with light-type soy sauce)

60cc (2 oz) mirin

10g (2.5 tsp) salt

(Special sauce)

75g (5 tbsp) soy sauce

15g (1 tbsp) grated ginger

15g (1 tbsp) finely chopped scallion 

*Oden ingredients are available in Japanese grocery stores.


Step 1: Slice daikon and konnyaku to your favorite thickness.

Step 2: Slice gyusuji and octopus to your favorite thickness.

Step 3: Cut fish cake if necessary.

Step 4: Make hardboiled eggs and shell them.

Step 5: Dissolve dashi powder in water and add soy sauce, mirin, and salt.

Step 6: Add oden ingredients into the soup and bring it to a boil.

Step 7: Simmer for at least 30 minutes.

Step 8: Mix all the sauce ingredients, and serve with oden.

Step 9: To enjoy, add approximately one tablespoon of the special sauce onto the oden ingredients before eating. If you like, you can sprinkle on some shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven flavored pepper).


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