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.

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.

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