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.

Robata: Art + Food in Tokyo

We’re in Tokyo, but today we’re featuring a restaurant from our last trip. Why? Well, it took me this long to muster up the courage to ask our friends if I could write about the secret place they take their special guests. It’s such a unique restaurant that to use that word hardly describes it. As soon as you walk into Robata, located in central Tokyo in the shadow of one if its’ most famous hotels, you enter another dimension.

For instance, take a look at the setting here, at the strangely beautiful painting of the maneki neko (becoming cat) behind the irori hearth. I would flip over this if I were to find it at a gallery or antique shop, and yet, I’ve never seen anything like it. And this little corner represents only 1/100th of the collection in this remarkable place.

Every single inch of Robata is filled with something unusual, beautiful and fascinating. It’s too much to take in at one time, and the feeling is just overwhelming. It’s almost better understood in photographs.

And the food, you ask? Oh, I almost forgot this is a blog about food. Honestly speaking, the food takes a back seat to the setting, but it’s home-style, eclectic and full of flavor. The tableware too, is bold and impressive.

While we love Tadao Andoh and Japanese classic and modern minimalist design just as much as anyone, we can appreciate how special Robata is, especially for Tokyo residents who want to escape its hard edges for even a brief while.


Sakura: Beauty & Sadness

It’s April 1, and the sakura (cherry blossoms) have just started to bloom in Tokyo & Kyoto. According to the sakura forecast, the peak is expected to be April 14th in Tokyo and 15th in Kyoto. But this year’s festival will unlike any other, for the aftermath of the tragic March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster permeates the country, even in those regions untouched by its physical effects. It will be solemn, somber and imbued with a special poignancy. A time to reflect upon the blossoms’ fleeting beauty and the transience they represent.

Reflecting upon this idea, we’ve posted Sakura: Beauty & Sadness on Savory Japan. It’s a tribute to the people of Japan and their great courage and strength during the largest natural disaster in our nation’s history. We mourn the loss of the beautiful Matsushima coast and its’ ancient villages tucked along its craggy shores. We are all left to wonder how we can possibly help, and how we can give back to the Northeast– a place that has long nourished us with the bounty of its pristine waters and fertile fields. It seems impossible, but we can at least try.

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.

Kikkabu: How to make kabu chrysanthemums

Here’s an easy recipe you can use for special winter celebrations such as Oshogatsu. Kikkabu: kabu cut to look like kiku (chrysanthemum flowers). They look much more difficult to make than they really are. Anyone with good knife skills can easily do this at home.

Kabu are Japanese turnips. In Japan they come in many sizes and colors, but in the U.S. they are most commonly found in white and are a little bigger than golf balls. This is the perfect size to make the flowers, which people always think are too pretty to eat (but are really glad when they try them). They’re wonderfully crunchy, fresh and sweet.

RECIPE (serves eight)

1. Peel eight kabu. Cut the bottoms so they lie flat on the cutting board between 2 chopsticks. (You can chop and salt the green leafy tops to make quick pickles).

2. Make very thin (1/8″ or less) vertical slices, taking care not to cut all the way to the bottom. The chopsticks prevent this for the most part, but be careful with the first and last slices. You must cut perfectly square and even slices that are perpendicular to the cutting board.

3. Turn 90 degrees and make vertical slices again. This is a little tricky because you must hold the slices together with your other hand while slicing. Be careful of your fingers! If your slices were not perfectly uniform, you may have some stray pieces, but that’s OK.

4. Soak kabu in a bowl filled with 1 cup of cold water mixed with 1 tsp salt for 30 minutes (as shown in the top photo).

5. Remove, squeeze out as much water as possible, and soak at least eight hours (or overnight) in a container filled with 1/2 cup water, 3 tbs rice vinegar, 4 tbs sugar, 1/3 tsp salt and one 2 inch piece of kombu (kelp).

6. Remove kabu from the marinade and arrange the sliced “petals” outward to resemble flowers. (You’ll find the texture has changed and the kabu are softer than before.) Garnish with a few slices of dried red pepper in the middle of each flower, as shown in the photo.

You can use kikkabu as an edible garnish, add to a jubako (lacquer box) or served in individual portions on kozara (small plates). Browse our small selection of colorful, antique kozara on our online gallery for fine Japanese tableware, Mizuya.

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?

Tsukimi, Japan’s Harvest Moon Festival

Today is O-tsukimi — the Japanese Harvest Moon festival. We celebrate this day by placing some autumnal food and decorations, such as chestnuts, kabocha (pumpkin), susuki (pampas grass) and especially tsukimi dango (moon-viewing dumplings) on the family alter. We dedicate our bounty to Nature, reflecting upon and giving thanks for our good fortune.

Let’s hope for a clear night. Even if you’re busy rushing around and can’t get to a nice quiet, dark place, try to make it a point to look for the full moon as it rises over the horizon.

Read more about O-tsukimi, including an ideal setting in which to celebrate it, in Savory Japan’s Festival section.

It’s Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

I’m sad. I usually try to make it to Japan during sakura (cherry blossom season), but this year, I’m stuck here in Chicago. Last year I wrote this article about the Cherry Blossom Festival, so in case you missed it, take a look. There’s also a slide show.

At the height of sakura season in Kyoto's Gion neighborhood
At the height of sakura season in Kyoto's Gion neighborhood

The article delves into the history of this — one of Japan’s most important festivals — and how this fragile blossom became an iconic symbol of Japanese beauty that influenced the art, food and philosophy of Japan.

The arrival of the blossoms also heralds the end of winter and the awakening of spring. It’s no accident that Savory Japan was launched at this time last year, as we are influenced by the seasonal calendar and regard it as a time for new beginnings, as do schoolchildren who embark on a new school year, businesses that begin another fiscal year and of course, farmers who are already busy with their seedlings.

Have you ever experienced the miracle of Japan’s Cherry Blossoms? Is it one of your favorite times to visit (or be in) Japan, or do you avoid the crowds at all costs? Does the sight of the falling petals bring a tear of joy to your eye, or do you dread the attendant multiple invitations and social engagements?

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