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?

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.