Oshogatsu Osechi-ryori, Part III: The Celebration

Yesterday, our family and friends gathered from near and far to celebrate Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year. We spent the day in the most positive way we could, for we believe that what you do on New Years is carried forth for the rest of the year. Like the renkon (lotus root, a Buddhist symbol) below symbolizes, oshogatsu is a time for reflection.

Renkon (lotus root) sunomono
Renkon (lotus root) sunomono

My dad made his famous tai (sea bream) with uni (sea urchin) glaze, and my mom made ozoni, a chicken-stock based soup with vegetables and omochi (rice cakes). Our family never got into the traditional mochi-tsuki (rice pounding) ceremony, but knowing me, perhaps we will next year!

I bought a particularly large tai, known as the “king of fish”. My dad cut the flesh from each side into perfect diamonds while leaving the skeleton (head, fins and all) intact.  He then roasted the salted skeleton in ample sea salt (the crusted salt looks particularly attractive). Then, he glazed the diamonds with his special sauce and roasted them separately. Finally, he arranged the morsels on the carcass for a dramatic presentation that was also easy to serve.

Jubako filled with osechi ryori
Jubako filled with osechi ryori

I was able to fill my Wajima lacquer jukabo with an array of colorful osechi morsels. From watching pros, I realized that the proper way to arrange the morsels was to tightly pack them, so that practically the entire meal fits into these compact boxes. I was finally able to find fresh yuzu, which I hollowed out and filled with bright red ikura (salmon roe). It was hard to coax our guests into “ruining” the arrangement, but I quickly replenished them as needed.

This is now my third year as head oshogatsu cook, and I’m starting to get the hang of it. I no longer have to look up the recipes, but cook in my usual style, by eye and tasting as I go. It was hard work, but fun, and most of all, I was able to spend the day with loved ones.

Savory Japan is now updated with three new osechi recipes: Tai with uni glaze, kuromame (sweet simmered soybeans) and iridori, the dish I wrote about in my previous post. These are a little more time consuming than the six that were included previously, but they’re well worth the effort.

Wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2010!

Oshogatsu Osechi-ryori, Part II: Cooking

It’s 7:00pm on New Year’s eve, and while I suspect many of you are out partying the night away,  I’m finally ready to sit down for toshikoshi (span the year) soba. Long noodles represent long life in Japanese culture, and eating soba on New Years is considered auspicious. It’s also light and healthy, and the perfect way to end a long hard day of cooking.

OK, so back to my comment yesterday, about cooking each ingredient for iridori separately. Iridori is one of the staples of osechi-ryori. It’s a substantial, stick-to-your-ribs type of dish that happens to be less expensive than the other osechi dishes such as kazunoko, tai, and so forth. It’s also a savory dish that is only made during Oshogatsu, and therefore, people tend to eat alot of it.


Iridori consists of simmered root vegetables such as daikon, sato-imo, renkon (lotus root), takenoko (bamboo shoots), as well as konnyaku (devil’s tongue) and a little bit of chicken. Most published recipes call for cooking all the ingredients together in one big pot. While this is certainly easy, it’s not practical, nor does it result in the most flavorful dish.

I really like each ingredient to have its own flavor, color and texture. For instance; the subtle natural sweetness of carrot would be quickly overtaken by the musky richness and dark color of shiitake mushrooms when cooked together. Daikon takes alot longer to cook than, say, bamboo shoots, and konnyaku has virtually no taste of its own and requires a strong simmering sauce.

Thus, I’ve developed a method of cooking the lighter vegetables first, in dashi, sake and just a bit of mirin and salt (or soy sauce) and then using the resulting liquid to simmer other ingredients, moving to progessively heavier and/or bland ingredients. The result? Even though everything is mixed together at the end, each morsel is perfectly cooked and has its’ own unique flavor.

The iridori takes the most time, but other dishes, such as kuromame, are tricky and require careful attention, which is hard when so many pots are simmering away. Other dishes require careful knife techniques, but are really not as difficult as they seem, such as creating beautiful kiku (chrysanthemum) blossoms from kabu (turnips), or slicing razor-thin disks of renkon for sunomono.

Tomorrow is the big day, and I’ll get to my favorite part of the celebration: My reward, if you will: the art of moriawase (plating). I’ll get to use some newly purchases jubako (lacquer boxes) and antique ceramic plates, including a fantastic Kenzan dish!

Stay tuned!

Oshogatsu Osechi, Part I: Shopping

The other day I loaded up the car with ingredients for our upcoming Oshogatsu feast. These photos only show a portion of the bounty, which includes Japanese root vegetables such as daikon, sato imo, renkon (lotus root) and gobo (burdock), as well as dry ingredients such as kuromame (black soybean) and tazukuri (dried sardines). In the front, you see golden kazunoko (herring roe), one of the most important New Year’s foods.

Clockwise: sato-imo, gobo, renkon, kuromame, kazunoko, tazukuri, daikon.
Clockwise: sato-imo, gobo, renkon, kuromame, kazunoko, tazukuri, daikon.
Clockwise: Sweet potatoes, datemaki, kamaboko, candied chestnuts, kombumaki
Clockwise: Sweet potatoes, datemaki, kamaboko, candied chestnuts, kombumaki

Some traditional osechi dishes are too difficult or time-comsuming to make from scratch, so I purchased the following frozen ingredients: Pictured in the front are red (actually pink) and white kamaboko, a type of nerimono (fish cake), and datemaki, fluffy golden spirals of egg and fish.

Tomorrow, New Year’s eve day, will be spent chopping, slicing, simmering, and tasting. It’ll be hard to get all the cooking done in one day, but so it goes. It would really be alot easier if I didn’t insist on cooking all the components for iridori separately, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to take this shortcut. Why? Well, more on this tomorrow. I’ve got to get to bed early for a long day.

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.

O-tsukimi, Japan’s Harvest Moon

An offering to the moon: tsukimi dango, chestnuts and kabocha
An offering to the moon: tsukimi dango, chestnuts and kabocha

You’re in a roji (“dewy path”, a small Japanese tea garden) on your way to your friend’s tea house. As you mindfully step on granite stones freshly splashed with water for your arrival, you notice that the stone lanterns, lit for the evening, are shining a little more brightly than usual. You peer inside of one of them, and notice an extra candle.

However, as you round a bamboo fence, the tiny and simple thatched roof teahouse comes into view, and you notice that the windows are dark, and find this a just a little odd. The tea house roof is so low that you have to lower your head as you enter the genkan. Despite your quiet arrival, your host welcomes you, opening the small shoji door for you to enter the four mat tearoom. In the dim natural light, you see the tokonoma, where a scroll painting of a moon, barley visible against the palest grey sky, and a bold arrangement of pampas grass and autumn flowers are displayed. It’s grown chilly in recent days, so you’re happy when your host invites you to sit close to the coals as he prepares the kettle for tea.

The light begins to grow brighter to the east, and you look out of the open shoji doors to see the moon, barely visible at first, rising past the trees in the distance. The sky is cloudless and the air, clear, rendering the outline of the moon in crisp detail. As the moon appears, impossibly huge and dazzling orange, you take a deep breath and your heart fills with joy. As the moon scatters golden reflections on the garden pond below, you watch, speechless, as it rises, past the sweeping branches of the pines.