Oshogatsu 2013

Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!

Yesterday, we celebrated Oshogatsu (the new year) — Japan’s most important holiday — with family and friends. Every year we spend at least three days shopping, prepping and cooking for this occasion, and each year it really tires us out. Our legs ache from standing for days on end, while our arms are sore from chopping and heavy lifting. In fact, every year we even talk about how we’d like to simplify — or even quit — the tradition, until the end of the year arrives and we find ourselves once again excited, planning ever more elaborate parties.

So forgive us for the late posting. We would have posted these photos yesterday, but we were on our feet, non-stop from 6:30am until 12:30pm with barely 10 minutes to sit down.

Like all important cultural events, food is central to the celebration. Pictured above is one of the tiers of jubako (lacquered strays) chock-full of osechi ryori, the typical food enjoyed during Oshogatsu. Placed around the boiled sweet shrimp and salmon rolled in daikon (giant radish) are, clockwise from upper left: Kamaboko (fish cakes) in red and white, Japan’s auspicious colors (pink and orange are considered red);  ikura (salmon eggs); datemaki (rolled fish and egg cake) the color of sunshine and gold; kombu maki (rolled kelp, simmered in sweet sauce) and tazukuri (dried sardines). Placed on top are several slices of renkon (lotus root) cut into flower shapes.

We have a four-tier jubako from the Meiji era, and every box is filled with a sumptuous arrangement full of foods with symbolic meaning, all meant to bring good fortune to our loved ones.

Pictured at left, the lower box  holds simmered buri (winter hamachi, or yellowtail), sato imo (mountain potatoes), renkon (the lotus is a Buddhist symbol) and shiitake mushrooms, topped with Kyoto carrots (naturally deep red) cut into the shape of ume (plum) blossoms, which we look forward to seeing in spring.

Flanking the boxes on the left and right are symbols of fertility: A bowl of crunchy kazunoko (herring roe) to bestow many children, and tazukuri (literally, “to make rice fields”). The name hails from a time small fish were used as fertilizer. Osechi is a centuries-old tradition, and it’s interesting to see how such names and traditions survive.

Fertility is represented again above, left; in the form of kuromame (simmered black beans), while kurikinton (sweet simmered chestnuts and sweet potato), the color of gold, bring good tidings of wealth.

More information about Osechi ryori, including recipes for many of these dishes pictured here  — can be found on the Oshogatsu page on Savory Japan. There, we also share our family history surrounding the festival, and the reasons we choose to go to such lengths each year. We’ll share more food photos on the Savory Japan facebook page, and flower designs on the facebook Mizuya page.

May the good fortune described here come true for you, and may 2013 be a great one for you and your family!

Hinamatsuri: Celebrating Girls’ Day

Today is Hinamatsuri, Japanese Girls’ Day. This month on Savory Japan, we introduce the festival, as well as some of the special foods that are enjoyed on this day. The beautiful Odaira-sama (Emperor) and Ohina-sama (Empress) dolls pictured here are our family treasures — given to me by my mother and aunt (my grandmother, sadly, passed away before I was born). They will be handed down to my sister and her eldest daughter (as I have no children), and so on.

In modern Japan, the Emperor is usually seated on the left hand side. We’ve always displayed them in this manner — with the Empress on the left hand side — which is apparently the old, or traditional style.

Read more about the Hinamatsuri Festival.

The Art of the Jubako

Happy New Year! May 2012 be filled many delicious meals shared with good friends and family.

We thought we’d share some tips we’ve learned over several years of putting together the oshogatsu (New Year’s) meals in jubako (tiered lacquered boxes). It was only a few years ago that we finally purchased a high-quality, four-tier antique black lacquered jubako, and we’re starting to really enjoy the art of filling them with osechi ryori (New Year’s cuisine).

Above, we have a detail of one of the more colorful boxes, filled mostly with things we didn’t make, but purchased. In the center is a gold kozara (small dish) filled with ikura (salmon caviar). Nestled closely around it (clockwise, from top left) are; two dishes made with eggs: Datemaki flavored with yuzu (citron) and Nishiki tamago (egg separated into yellow and white and pushed through a fine sieve); Several kinds of kombumaki (kombu rolled around a center and simmered until tender) filled with salmon, anago (sea eel) and tarako (salted cod roe). We were able to keep the bright color and round shape of the shrimp by first skewering them into shape, quickly parboiling to set the color and then gently boiling them in dashi mixed with sake, shoyu and mirin. Ferns and cedar branches — as well as parboiled snow peas — serve to set off “zones” for each type of food.

It’s always nice to have a few large focal points as well. The gorgeous prawns in the center of the box pictured above serve this function well. It’s important to keep to the lucky numbers such as one, three and five. Therefore, even though the prawns were sold in packs of two, we placed three here and one in another box. Around the prawns are kombumaki, simmered sato-imo (taro); yuzu filled with ikura, pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes); creamy, golden kurikinton; tataki gobo (pounded burdock) and kiku kabu (turnip chrysanthemums).

Take care to place contrasting colors next to each other, and pack them tightly so as to portray abundance.

Osechi ryori is designed to be eaten at room temperature, so it’s a wonderful way to throw a party. If kept simple, you only need to replenish the boxes as the night progresses. And while I always aim to include ALL the dishes for the party in these lovely boxes, we invariably find that some things — such as salads — are better served in bowls. I suppose we just need to find some small black lacquered boxes to hold such items. Oh well, that will be for next year.

The anticipation of the year’s jubako is always a joy. We talk about what and what not to include during the year. But we always include the classics. For recipes and an explanation of the history and symbolism of nine of these important dishes, please refer to the Oshogatsu page on Savory Japan.

Oshogatsu 2012

New Year’s is just around the corner, and we’ve already completed half of our shopping for the coming year’s Oshogatsu celebration. The centerpiece of the meal is osechi ryori, pictured above, served in antique black-lacquered trays. Osechi is a time-worn, ancient type of cuisine that is heavy on long-simmered vegetables and sweet, sour and savory flavors. As you might have seen in past blog posts about oshogatsu shopping, preparation and cooking, and the long-awaited celebration, the whole process is a lot of work. So much work, in fact, that last year’s Oshogatsu party — one of the biggest and most elaborate we’ve ever thrown — tired us out for three days.

This year, we’re planning to spend a quiet Oshogatsu and will host a smaller party. Part of the menu will include some kind of grilled mochi topped with various colorful and flavorful toppings, as served at Mochikiya, a charming mochi shop at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market.

My husband plans to include a new recipe for mochi topped with Kobe beef and black sesame sauce. We always like to mix a few rich, Western dishes with the light and healthy Japanese ones — in small portions, of course.

We’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a very Happy New Year. May 2012 bring you and your family joy, health and prosperity.

See you in 2012!


Oshogatsu 2011

Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu (Happy New Year)! May 2011 bring you great health, scrumptious food and good times. We celebrated Oshogatsu in the traditional way: enjoying osechi ryori with our good friends and family. The centerpiece this year (I suppose a sort of hassun platter, if you will) was my husband’s arrangement of snow crab legs on ice, pictured at left. While I do the majority of the cooking for New Year’s, there are usually one or two dishes my husband makes, and I’m often just as surprised as our guests are when they’re presented.

He was inspired by Kichisen’s arrangement of snow crab on snow as seen on Kyoto Foodie, but I have to admit I was a little skeptical at just the logistics of it. But he used ice instead of snow, and snake weed instead of bamboo, and I was impressed by its sheer beauty and abundance. What I and our guests especially appreciated were his choice of tableware, including a large Kenzan-style ceramic box and delicate, round red-and-white kyo-yaki covered dishes that hold the yuzu (citron) sauce.

We added some new things to the menu, including the boiled shrimp (cleaned and skewered to keep their round shape) and abalone pictured above. Of course, there were all the usual favorites as well, including (from top to bottom, left to right): pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes), datemaki (egg and fish cakes), kombumaki, ikura (salmon eggs) in yuzu container, kazunoko, grilled buri (yellowtail) and kuromame (black beans.)

We stacked most of the food into an antique black lacquered 4-tier jubako, including the various simmered vegetables and chicken iridori pictured above, but others — including salads and sushi — went in separate bowls and atop trays.

Some of hits (besides the crab legs, which got gobbled up) were the kikkabu and kuromame, which turned out especially well this year. I followed Elizabeth Andoh’s recipe in her latest book Kansha, and they turned out perfectly tender and sweet. In previous years I had trouble with the beans gradually hardening over time, but this time they remained tender. I made extra to keep snacking on at home in the coming days.

Links to recipes are on the Oshogatsu page as well on the various pages of the recipe section.

New Year’s Eve at our house

Today’s Chicago Tribune (in the Food section) has an article about Japanese New Year’s Eve traditions called “A Savory End to the Old Year”. It tells a bit about our family’s Oshogatsu tradition and why my husband and I can be found in the kitchen instead of the dance floor on New Year’s Eve.

It’s to prepare for the big day, of course: Three full days of shopping, chopping, slicing, simmering, broiling and more chopping. Last year I documented the process in a series of blog posts: Part I is about shopping, Part II is the preparation and cooking, and Part III is the celebration.

You can read more about our family’s Oshogatsu tradition here, where there are also links to recipes for Osechi-ryori, the ancient kind of food served during New Year’s. They include tai (sea bream), kuromame (black beans), tataki gobo (pounded burdock), kurikinton (creamy sweet potatoes with candied chestnuts, my personal favorite) and more.

The photo above is from last year’s jubako (lacquer box). We’ll post new photos on January 2nd. What our guests don’t know (yet) is that we’re not planning to make tai this year, but snow crab, jellied yamaimo squares and even beef carpaccio a la Toshiro Konishi. We have to change it up to keep it interesting for us, but we’ll still make all my family’s favorites. To do otherwise would likely cause an uproar.

What does your family serve for New Year’s? Do you make any of these old-fashioned osechi-ryori dishes? My friends in Tokyo tell me that they don’t know anyone that still makes osechi, so I wonder if we’re just old-fashioned?

Simmered Tai head and more at Yururi

Savory Japan is updated for October with a feature on my cousin’s restaurant, Yururi. I promise I’m not including it because of my family ties. After all, Savory Japan has been around since March of 2009 and we’re only now getting around to reviewing it as part of our series on Tokyo.

That said, I probably wouldn’t have found this quiet oasis on busy (some might say gaudy) Romance-dori in Ikebukuro on my own. But visitors will find good food at extremely reasonable prices, especially during lunch. It’s also very much a local’s restaurant with authentic menu items, such as the simmered tai (sea bream) head pictured here.

You might ask what’s in Ikebukuro to warrant a special trip? Well, just minutes away is another hidden gem: A school complex built by Frank Lloyd Wright and his assistant Arata Endo called Myonichikan. Read the article for more.

Avant Garde Somen for a Sultry Summer Day

Avant garde somen in a hand-blown glass bowl "shell"by Satoshi Sugie

The upcoming August feature for Savory Kyoto in Kyoto’s Visitor’s Guide will be about cold noodles. Noodles are considered a snack – not a proper meal – in Japan, (as a meal would naturally include rice) but at our house we enjoy them regularly, especially on hot and humid days like today. Somen takes just minutes to boil, and when served in a glass bowl with cold water and a few pieces of floating ice- you can feel your temperature drop on visuals alone. Then, when you dip the delicate noodles, as thin and light as air, into a chilled dashi dipping sauce flavored with just a bit of grated shoga (ginger), you ARE cooler.

This photo was created by my husband, who had the idea to add a few strands of cha-soba for contrast in Rimpa-inspired swirls, and floated a few petals cut from negi atop. I have to admit that while I was a little skeptical at first (because, after all, I’M the one who wears the apron around here) I was impressed by not only his idea but his art direction.

But praise for my husband aside, I think that what makes this dish so visually interesting is the hand-blown glass bowl, entitled “Shell” by glass artist Satoshi Sugie. He and his wife Akiko (also a glass artist) live and work in Kameoka, just north of Kyoto. We happened upon their exhibit at the famous Tachikichi tableware shop on Shijo-dori during our last trip, and plan to visit their studio in the fall.

OK, so I played with the placement of this photo to show the bowl in an unusual way to set off its avant-garde quality, but I have to make some kind of contribution, don’t I?

What did it taste like? Wonderful. The hint of negi was light enough to add just a bit of contrast. But the entire experience was far better- it was like eating from a bowl of ice, suspended in mid-air.

How cool.

Mochibana Blooms Brighten the New Year

Our first attempt at making mochibana
Our first attempt at making mochiban

Winter can be so dreary, and every household can benefit from some blossoms to brighten the surroundings. For this, a tradition that started in Northern Japan brings flowers to a season that has none. We have long admired these winter flowers, mochibana (literally, mochi flowers) that are currently in bloom in traditional homes and shops throughout Japan. Cascading gracefully from wall vases perched up high, this traditional Oshogatsu (New Year) decoration – made of willow and pink and white mochi (pounded rice) fashioned into blossoms – always brings a smile and must have seemed magical hanging inside a snow-bound home.

Inspired to bring a bit of spring to our home, we scouted the suburbs for a willow tree, finally finding one near a temple near my parents’ home. We had planned to make mochibana with the kids during New Years day, but as you can see from my previous posts, we were pretty busy and ran out of time. Therefore, we made these on the day after New Years.

It really isn’t as easy as it looks. The mochi is extremely sticky and hard to get to the right texture, and was difficult to get off our fingers. Wetting our hands didn’t really help. Finally, we coated our fingers with rice flour, which helped a little. The pink color simply comes from adding a few drops of red food coloring to the mochi and kneading it. Perhaps there’s a traditional way to add color, but I’m not aware of it.

Once we get the hang of it, we’ll try again next year with the kids, well before the bustle of oshogatsu. But for now, a gentle spray of mochibana cascades gracefully from high up on our wall, helping us bear another frigid and barren winter in Chicago. Perhaps we’ll even keep them up until Japan’s ume (plum) blossoms arrive, in late February.

Here’s a poem by Issa, written in 1813 (translation by my husband):

mochibana [no] kokage nite uchi awawa kana

In the shade
of the mochibana
making baby laugh