Taste the new year in Japan
New Year’s is Japan’s biggest and longest holiday. People take Dec. 27 to Jan. 4 off from work to celebrate the first three days of the year praying at temples and shrines for the coming year. It is our Christmas and Thanksgiving – a time to relax with family and friends over special foods and sake.
When I was a child, every year my family would go to my grandfather’s house in the Oita countryside to celebrate New Year’s with relatives. It was an important time of year when we enjoyed a traditional New Year’s feast around the “kotatsu,” a low table with a heater underneath to keep us warm and cozy.
There are traditional Japanese foods to ring in the new year that are as pleasing to the eye as they are the palate. I can’t say that I liked them all as a child. But these days, I find that their traditional meanings as well as the childhood memories they bring back make this a feast that I look forward to all year long.
You could say that, traditionally, the feast really begins on New Year’s Eve, or “Oomisoka.”On this day, it is customary for Japanese to clean house to bring good fortune in the coming year. (OK, this part is not a fond memory; I always wanted to play with my friends while my mom made me clean my room.) Then we eat “toshikoshi,” or passing-year, soba noodles at night.
According to tradition, we eat long thinnoodles in hopes of a long healthy life for the whole family in the coming year. Some people eat homemade soba or, on Okinawa, Okinawan soba; others eat a cup of instant soba noodles. It does not matter, as long as it is soba noodles.
If you are lucky enough to be in Okinawa for New Year’s you’ll find elements of two culinary traditions to sample. Because of its Ryukyu Kingdom history, Japan’s southernmost islands have their own indigenous dishes as well as those from mainland Japan.
“In Okinawa, families gathered to celebrate New Year’s with special foods that were served at ceremonies and feast year round, not just foods for New Year’s,” says Yayoi Kohagura, of the Okinawa prefectural government. “But ever since Okinawa was returned to Japan (in 1972), New Year’s foods have caught on. Nowadays, many people eat Okinawan and Japanese foods for New Year’s.”
Local dishes you should be on the lookout for in restaurants include “rafute” (pork belly), “taamu” (taro) and “inamuruchi” (white miso soup with chopped pork). While at the same time, stores across the island will have traditional Japanese New Year’s fare on offer.
The first three days of January are called “oshogatsu.” During oshogatsu, “ozoni” and “osechi” are the main dishes on a typical Japanese family’s table. Ozoni is a clear soup that contains “mochi,” a glutinous rice cake; fish cake; chicken; leafy greens; carrots; shiitake mushrooms; and maybe more.
The soup stock varies from region to region. In most of mainland Japan it may be flavored with seaweed or “bonito” (dried fish flakes). People make miso-based ozoni in western regions like Kansai. In Okinawa, instead of ozoni, people eat “nakamijiru,” a soup made with chitterlings.
From ancient times, mochi has been a celebratory food in Japan representing fortune. Today, you can still see it at traditional events and elsewhere in the form of white, stacked, circular cakes (or packaged squares at grocers) – especially this time of year. You’ll also see a lot of mochi pounding events where large mallets are used to pound steamed rice into mochi. Although mochi is not a traditional ingredient in nakamijiru, nowadays it may be added to this Okinawan dish just like ozoni. It’s tasty but be careful.
There have been cases when people, especially the elderly and small children, have severely choked on this densely chewy treat. So watch out when you eat mochi for the first time. But once you try really good ozoni, you will be obsessed with the awesome taste. This is, by far, my favorite New Year’s dish.
Then there is osechi, which literally means beginning a new season and represents the start of the new year. This is a set of selected dishes. It’s kind of like a fancy bento box for the entire family that is eaten during oshogatsu, sometimes for all three meals.
They are designed to nourish and wish the family well, while expressing thanks for the new year. The foods are beautifully arranged in a “juubako,” which is traditional lacquered food box with three or four tiers.
Osechi consists of foods that can be prepared in advance and keep for a few days without spoiling. Traditionally, it ensured everyone got a three-day break, even mothers and wives who wouldn’t have to cook and wash dishes. Also, most stores and restaurants used to be closed during oshogatsu.
These days, some stores open Jan. 1 because business can be good. It is believed that osechi started during the Edo Period (1603-1867) when coming up with a variety prepared foods that would keep for three days was a pretty amazing feat.
For those who don’t have a lot time or desire to prepare osechi, you can order them from companies at supermarkets and online. You can even order one at the nearest convenience store and pick it up. There is a wide variety available, including traditional Japanese as well as Chinese, Western and even Disney-themed osechi. Prices range is from the equivalent of about $150 to $200 for a three- to four-person osechi.
“This traditional Japanese food was recognized on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013,” says Fumitoshi Kumagai, a spokesperson for osechi maker Kibun Foods Inc. “Since then people have been paying more attention to traditional osechi. So they are quite popular this year. But character-themed osechi such as Disney are also popular with families who have small children.”
It’s too bad they didn’t have those fancy kiddy osechi when I was growing up. Honestly, I was not a big fan of osechi as a child because a lot of the traditional foods were kind of bland vegetable dishes and I would have preferred something like steak or fried chicken. I was also not too thrilled about eating the same food for a couple days. But times, and I, have change.
Now I really enjoy and appreciate osechi. It comes from the wisdom of my ancestors. The colors and designs of each dish are works of art with meanings intended to bring good fortune in the coming new year. I guess my sense of taste has grown – grown for a taste of Okinawa.
Get to know your ‘osechi’ dishes
Osechi is a decorative set of dishes eaten on New Year’s. Each traditional Japanese dish has a special meaning, expressing well-wishing for the coming year. These osechi can be found at department stores or supermarkets. Here are some of the classic dishes.
Kazunoko (herring roe) are tiny yellow fish eggs. The many eggs signify prosperity for your descendants. The texture is chunky and the eggs are not loose. They are marinated in a broth of bonito soup stock, sake and soy sauce. You can often find them at sushi restaurants.
Kuromame (sweet simmered black beans) is soft and sweet. You may also notice a bit of soy sauce flavoring. Kuromame represents good health and diligent work.
Tazukuri are small sardines that have been dried and cooked in a sweet sauce of sugar, sweet rice wine, soy sauce and sake. These are rich in calcium. Tazukuri represents praying for a large catch and a good harvest. Don’t be afraid to eat the head!
Kombumaki is kelp roll and stuffed with salmon or chicken, which has been cooked in a sweet soy sauce-based sauce. The name of kobumaki is a play on words, which mean joy in Japanese, so it’s eaten for good luck food during New Year’s.
Datemaki is a Japanese-style omelet with fish paste. Because the shape of datemaki resembles a scroll, it stands for cultural development.
Kurikinton is sweet potatoes and chestnuts, which can look something like yellow mashed potatoes. This is a child favorite. Kurikinton is believed to bring you wealth because the color looks like gold.
Kamaboko is a dense cake of fish paste. The combination of red and white is used on happy occasions in Japan. Another red-and-white food you’ll find is called namasu, which is daikon radish and carrots pickled in vinegar.
Kohada no awazuke is spotted shad pickled in foxtail millet. People started using this in osechi because it is pickled and can keep for many. To get rid of all the small bones, the fish is cut into three slices and salt is added to the pickle mixture.
Ebi or shrimp represents long life because it has long whiskers. Also, shrimp curls when it is cooked like an old person. It is considered good luck because you will live until your back bends like an old person’s.
There are also various vegetables are prepared for osechi such as gobo (burdock root) with sesame, lotus root, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and pea pods.
– Tetsuo Nakahara, Stripes Japan
Drink up Otoso!
No New Year’s in Japan would is complete without a few sips of “otoso” on New Year’s Day.
Otoso is sake or rice wine that has been specially prepared with a mixture of herbs and mirin (sweet rice wine) several hours before drinking. It’s customary for the whole family to consume a small cup at the start of the first day of the year.
Each family has its own way of making otoso. It is said that drinking otoso will keep sickness away for the entire year ahead, as well as bestow peace on the household.
I remember being allowed to sip just a little bit of otoso when I was a child as family traditon. And I was thinking how nasty the sake tastes. And now, I can’t wait for New Year’s Day to come.
(“New Year’s soup)
Every family has its own unique way of making “ozone.” Throughout most of Japan, especially eastern Japan, ozoni is made with a clear broth. In Western Japan, the ozoni broth is made with miso soup.
Ingredients for 4 servings:
• About 5 cups of water
• 1 large 2 inch x 2 inch piece of dried “dashi konbu” (seaweed)
• Roughly 1/2 cup sliced carrots
• Roughly 1/3 cup sliced white radish or daikon
• Handful of mizuna. Or Japanese greens (leaves and stems)
• 2 shakes of salt
• 1 tsp of soy sauce
• 2 piece of mochi per person
• 1/2 block of fish cake, or “kamaboko,” sliced and then halved
• Chicken breast chopped into bite-sized pieces.
1. In a large pot, add the dashi konbu and water. Leave it for at least a couple hours. And then boil. Reduce heat to medium.
2. Add soy sauce and simmer for a few minutes. Add the chicken into the pot and cook on low (to keep it tender) and skim off residue.
3. Add carrots and daikon. Cook until tender. Reduce heat to low. Add salt.
4. Just before the ozoni is ready to be served, add a handful of the mizuna, and simmer for a few minutes until tender.
5. I usually put mochi into an oven toaster for five minutes before adding it to the soup. This is to make mochi crispy brown so that I can enjoy combination taste of mochi crisp and ozone soup at the same time. Add the mochi to the stock pot and allow it to continue to cook for about a minute.
6. Place two pieces of kamaboko inside each individual serving bowl.
7. Enjoy while it’s hot!
(sweet black beans)
Ingredients for 4 servings:
• About 0.4 lb of black beans, or “kuromame”
• About 0.4 lb of sugar
• 1 and half tsp of soy sauce
1. Rinse kuromame well and soak in the bowl full of water over night.
2. Next day, put koromame into the pot with enough water and boil.
3. Once it’s boiled, reduce to medium heat and skim off residue. * skim very well.
4. When the water is reduced to kuromame level, add more water.
5. Reduce heat and simmer for about three hours until soft.
6. Divide sugar into three portions and gradually add each separately while slowly stiring well, allow each portion time to soak into the kuromame.
7. Stir in soy sauce and cool.
8. Store in the cooked liquid.
(Sweet potato and chestnut)
Ingredients for 4 servings:
• About 0.7 lb of sweet potato
• A bottle of sweet cooked chestnuts, or “kuri no kanroni,” (you can purchase at Japanese store)
• 1 tsp of lemon juice
• Sauce: 0.14 lb of sugar, 1 shake of salt, half cup of water, 1 oz. of “mirin,” or sweet rice cooking wine”
1. Slice sweet potatoes about an inch wide. Peel and put it in the bowl with water and lemon juice. Soak for an hour to soften and remove residue.
2. Rinse it and put it into the pot, cover with water and boil until tender.
3. Take out sweet potatoes and mash with wooden spoon or stick.
4. Put it into the pot and add the sauce. Stir well on low heat.
5. When the moisture evaporates from the potato, add sweet chestnuts. You can add some liquid from the bottle of sweet chestnuts for sweetness.