Preparing for Oshogatsu

A selection of osechi-ryori displayed in a jubako (lacquer box)
Part of the osechi-ryori meal I prepared for 2009.

I’m sorry I haven’t been around. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking of you. Quite the contrary; I’ve been busy testing and writing down recipes in honor of the upcoming Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) holiday. During oshogatsu, which is our most important holiday of the year, we believe we must  finish all cleaning and cooking so the day – and by extension, year – can start anew, unspoiled and completely fresh. An important part of this tradition is osechi-ryori, an ancient style of cooking that makes it possible to devote New Years Day to family, community, spirit, and reflection.

Savory Japan now has six relatively easy-to-prepare osechi-ryori classics. All have an auspicious and symbolic meaning, whether due to the sound of the name, color, or visual symbolism. They include Kurikinton, Tataki Gobo, Kohaku Namasu, Tazukuri, Renkon no Sunomono and Kazunoko.

I know it might be too early to post these recipes, but things have been pushed a little ahead of schedule because of an essay I wrote for Kyoto Visitor’s Guide on How Kyoto Celebrates Oshogatsu. Their editorial schedule features a combined December/January issue, which is now available. Future issues of Kyoto Visitor’s Guide will include something or other related to Japanese cuisine and culture (especially as related to Kyoto) written by yours truly. Those who have been following this blog know just how deeply I love the city of Kyoto, so I’m really looking forward to the assignment.

I hope you enjoy the recipes, and if you have any questions or comments, please post them here.

The Role of Rice in the Family Meal

As I explain in the ingredient introduction  of Savory Japan, “Rice is so elemental to the soul of Japanese cooking that gohan, the word for rice, is synonymous with the word for meal”, and that “the most basic meal consists of plain rice and soup, and the rest of the meal, okazu (things to go with rice) are considered to be added elements”.

That’s why noodles aren’t really considered a meal, but a snack, for without rice, a typical Japanese native feels he or she hasn’t eaten. The very idea is odd to foreigners.

In our house, rice was served at the end of a meal, with tsukemono (pickles), soup and tea. My parents, who enjoyed their cocktails, never had rice during the meal, as it was the custom to not mix alcohol with rice. (And by the way, if you know the origin of this custom, please explain it here!) While we were young, we sometimes had rice during the meal, but it was up to us. Now that we are grown and have families of our own, my sisters and I follow the custom in varying degrees. After all, we now live in the US (though I should point out that my American husband has much more traditional tastes in Japanese food than me.)

Since my extended family followed this custom, and because virtually every traditional Japanese  multi-course meal also did so, I thought it was the norm.  However, after starting Savory Japan, I heard from some of my Japanese friends who had a different experience, with rice always served during the meal.

It was enough to cause me to qualify some of the articles on the site, and it raised an interesting point. What is traditional in some families is not in others. Different family circumstances and backgrounds, economic situations and regions, all bring different customs.

So I’m curious. What was the custom at your house?

Family History – Otōsan (father)

My dad on TV as appears in the film "Majority of One"
My dad's appearance on TV from the film "Majority of One"

I was thinking today about my dad, in honor of Father’s Day. He has superb taste in food, and I can see that this a gift – as well as a burden – to him. When we go out to a good restaurant, he always has at least one comment about how the food could be improved, and it’s pretty rare when he deems anything perfect. My family is used to it, and over the years my mom took his comments with a grain of salt (especially when he critiqued her food!) But the love of food runs in the family, and we tend to take it seriously. Many of my relatives are (or were) in the restaurant business. In fact, I spent my pre-natal days at my parents’ restaurant in Tokyo, a Western Steakhouse in the shadow of Tokyo Tower called El Paso. My dad – then known as the “Hank Williams of Japan”  –  was enamored with American culture, and had learned English by listening to Country & Western songs on the radio. Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn’t a success (it was about 10 years ahead of its time,) so he decided to follow his dreams and venture West, traveling first to the Western land of cowboys and indians that filled his fantasies. He was invited to stay for a few weeks at Wild Horse Ranch in Arizona by the owners (who had shared recipes with him). There, he met a nice family from Madison who got him a job in Chicago, and that was how our family came to the Midwest.

My dad doesn’t cook often, but when he does, he’s a master. When my parents entertain, he always makes perfectly formed nigiri zushi, and we as a result became quite spoiled for eating at anything but the best sushi restaurants. He forms the rice into small mounds, (about 2/3 of the size that’s typically served) draping the raw fish over and around them. The size is perfect– easy to eat whole in one bite, as it’s supposed to be eaten. He’s also very inventive. The other day he made unagi (freshwater eel) oshizushi (pressed sushi), cut not into slices, but tiny squares, each topped with a delicate sliver of lemon. The balance of flavors was perfect, and the mere memory makes my mouth water.

I find it poetic that my dad was looking West during his young adult life while I, in turn, looked East. Although he still keeps in touch with family and friends who send lovely care packages full of senbei (rice crackers) and the very best quality rishiri kombu, I find it odd that I travel to Japan so often, while he rarely crosses the ocean. Nevertheless, he continues to be a culinary master, as his taste buds haven’t forgotten the correct balance of flavors for tempura dipping sauce, and can still discern the different sea salts from various places in Japan. I’ve learned an immense amount of knowledge (though admittedly, sometimes against my will) from his comments over the years, and he’s a big inspiration to me.

You may ask, whatever happened to my dad’s western leanings? Does he like chili and tex-mex?

Well, no, not really. But he can still sing and yodel with the best of them.

A Message for Okāsan (mother)

pond-for-webWhile my sisters and I were growing up in the leafy, affluent environs of the North Shore, my mom often attempted to point out our good fortune with stories from the past. One of her favorites was how she walked rather than took the bus  from our apartment in Lincoln Park to Star Market (at the time, the only Japanese grocery store in Chicago) just so she could spend the extra money on a better cut of maguro for us.

Such stories didn’t really sink fully into my teenage brain (as  it was filled with more pressing concerns such as grades and boys), but I never forgot them. Her sacrifice was a revealing one that underscores the important role food played in our lives. Her actions make sense to me in an abstract sense, but if I really think about it, would I have done the same? Freeze my toes off in flimsy rubber boots while lugging a shopping cart miles down Clark street in the drifting snow, all for a few moments of happiness that only great tuna can bring? Maybe not, but then again, I don’t have kids. I can only imagine that her sacrifice was made worthwhile not for her benefit, but for ours.

My mother, who in her youth looked like a movie star, hardly looks like someone who had to make sacrifices, or for that matter, spent lots of time in the kitchen.  She was (and is) an excellent if not natural cook. I remember her reading Japanese food magazines, her brown knitted as if she were reading an incomprehensible riddle, as she decided on the day’s menu. Perhaps she was trying to figure out what Western ingredient to substitute for which Japanese one? Poor mom, she was not only thrifty, but had to deal with a foreign culture while feeding a family of gourmands.

The results were delicious, and we didn’t know the difference. Didn’t all Japanese make tsukemono out of cabbage? And have bacon with their tamago gohan (egg on rice)?

It was only after I moved to Japan as an exchange student and started my frequent transpacific journeys that I came to understand that the cuisine I grew up on wasn’t the same as my cousins in Tokyo. And I started to feel sorry that my parents couldn’t be with me to sample a meltingly soft square of ootoro (fatty tuna) or sip a cup of fragrant hiresake (roasted blowfish fin in hot sake.)

Such moments remind me that I’m still that spoiled and fortunate Americanized child who can’t fathom her immigrant mother’s sacrifice. The chasm of our worlds are so far apart. But as I grow older, I’m more and more grateful for everything I have made possible only because of the hard work and thrift of my mother and father.

So today, in honor of mothers day, I have a message for my okāsan.

I love you mom. Thank you for your sacrifices and for your brilliance in the kitchen that never made we want for anything. You instilled in me such confidence in the world, and a feeling of abundance that are still with me today. Likewise, your healthy cooking, served hot every single night, helped me grow strong and healthy so that I never developed a taste for junk food or sweets. Thank you for all the bentos you made, and for running out of the house after me, barefoot, on the days I carelessly forgot them. No matter what I can do for you for mothers day, it’s not enough.

We’re here, together today with the whole family in your honor. Let me cook for you. What would you like?