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.

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!

 

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?

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