Local Japanese-style New Year’s Cuisine and Traditions
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Today, people in the 50th still practice Japanese New Year’s, or oshögatsu, traditions by placing a kadomatsu near the home entrance, stacking the kagami mochi topped with a tangerine and consuming ozoni as the first meal of the new year. In Japan, people enjoy osechi ryöri during the first three days of the year.
The tradition behind osechi ryöri goes back centuries, to the Heian Period (794-1185), according to the website www.kcpinternational.com. And in those days, cooking or lighting the kitchen hearth was forbidden during the first three days of the New Year. Therefore, osechi ryöri was prepared in the days leading up to New Year’s Day. And because refrigeration wasn’t readily available in most homes, osechi ryöri cuisine was either heavily salted, sweetened or pickled to make it safe to consume over the next few days.
In Japan today, it is common to order and purchase osechi ryöri from restaurants and caterers. However, in the 50th, osechi ryöri cuisine isn’t as much of a tradition. For those of us who do partake, we usually purchase osechi foods from the local Marukai Wholesale Mart, which, along with individual items, also offer a three-tiered, lacquered box with traditional osechi ryöri for $199.
Several years ago, we splurged on a three-tiered jubako (lacquered bentö box) from the old Shirokiya for about $100. It fed the three of us for only a day, making it a bad way to start the new year, already several hundred dollars in the hole!
My Family’s Mixed Traditions
Since my parents were a mix of Nisei and Sansei generations, many of the original translations of
oshögatsu customs were mixed in their intent. While we did sip scalding, insipid cooking sake at the stroke of midnight to prevent illness in the new year, we also followed other “traditional” Japanese customs for the sake that it “was” a New Year’s tradition. Like consuming kazunoko, or herring roe, during the new year.
Although my parents never explained why it was a New Year’s tradition, I continued to have kazunoko and shishamo (capelin fish filled with roe) until I realized it symbolized fertility. Nope, I didn’t want that years ago and I don’t need it now, especially since I’m approaching that sixth decade of existence.
Once the new year started, Dad made us discard any kadomatsu and kagami mochi, as keeping it around into the new year brought bad luck to the household. I later discovered that kadomatsu are usually kept until Jan. 7 (or the 15th in the Edo Period) when they are burned to release the ancestral spirits that take residence during the changing of the year. And kagami mochi are usually kept until the second Saturday or Sunday after New Year’s Day when they are broken and consumed (kagami biraki). Due to the temperate climate in the 50th, even semidried mochi start getting moldy after a day or two.
Obaachan and Dad always said that because the changing of the year unsettled time, they never wanted us to travel on the 31st, as we would be more likely to get into an accident due to this unsettled time-space continuum (or something like that) so we always spent the Eve at home. Dad always instructed us not to spend money on New Year’s or we’d end up spending money the rest of the year. He also told Mom not to cook or clean or she’d end up cooking and cleaning the rest of the year. Mom always ignored him, telling him someone had to cook and clean for the remainder of the year and she knew it wouldn’t be Dad.
My Own Traditions
I still indulge in a bowl of toshi-koshi soba before the clock strikes midnight. However, I never knew the actual significance of the tradition — as many families have a bowl of saimin — until I learned that soba is a softer noodle that breaks easily, so consuming a bowl before the new year breaks any bad luck of the current year that you don’t want to carry over. And believe me, the Tatsumotos had some that we’d like to leave in 2019.
Another tradition I practice is to steep otoso herbs in a bottle of sake from about two weeks before New Year’s. Otoso is the traditional spiced sake that’s supposed to prevent illness in the New Year. I was fortunate to find “teabags” containing the cinnamon, sansho pepper, ginger and other herbs I never heard of, like kikyö and okera (small flower herbs) at Shirokiya many years ago. Once Shirokiya folded, I found another source at Marukai (I purchased about 10 bags and keep it in my freezer).
I also prep most of my ozoni the day before with the same seven ingredients; thin slices of mizuna, daikon, shiitake, enoki mushrooms, hasu and carrots with a broth made from dashi konbu and bonito flakes that’s steeped for about 30 minutes. That way, on the morning of New Year’s Day, since my knife skills aren’t peaking after a couple of hours of sleep with Champagne and sake still coursing through my bloodstream, I simply have to reheat the broth (I add canned scallops instead of hokkigai since hokkigai has to be cleaned of “critters”), then add the veggies and mochi.
I still indulge in kuromame and konbu maki, which I used to purchase in containers at Shirokiya then Marukai. But they’re very expensive, so for the past 10 years or so, I made them on my own. The raw materials are inexpensive and it only takes a little time to pressure cook or simmer. OK, $3.49 for 10 pieces of pretied dried konbu maki isn’t cheap, but tying rehydrated, slippery pieces of konbu isn’t an easy chore, but well worth the cost in additional labor and it’s still a lot cheaper than packaged, precooked konbu maki for $6 to $7.
KUROMAME BLACK SOY BEANS
4 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 packages kuromame (about 2 cups)
One clean old nail if available
Diced and dried konbu and/or chestnuts (optional)
I found this recipe in the original Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin series of cookbooks, which called for soaking overnight, followed by a five-hour simmer. The addition of the nail is to help set a darker black color of the kuromame. I’ve never added the nail since City Mill doesn’t sell “food grade” nails. I chose the modern route and placed everything in a pressure cooker, including the dried kuromame, for 60 to 90 minutes. Then, I let it cool to room temperature before opening the cooker.
4 packages of Marukai Quickie Nishime Konbu
2 cups water
1 and 1/4 cups soy sauce
1 cup sugar
1 small piece ginger root, crushed
Though most local versions of konbu maki are rolled around gobo and pork, this is the osechi ryöri version, which is meant to last with minimal refrigeration (though I do refrigerate mine). Place all ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and simmer for about two hours.
The Year of the Rat
The “Year of the Rat,” or Nezumi-doshi, restarts the zodiac with the Rat being the first animal presenting itself to either the Jade Emperor or Buddha, depending on which version of the story you follow. In the Chinese version, the Jade Emperor informed all animals that calendar years would be named in their order of arrival. Supposedly, there was a river between the animals and the Emperor and since the Rat and Cat were poor swimmers, they asked the Ox if they could ride on his back. Right before the Ox exited the river, the Rat pushed the Cat into the river (the Cat drowned, which is why there is no cat in the zodiac) then quickly jumped off the Ox’s back to present itself to the Emperor. Another version has Buddha summoning all animals before he left Earth and since the Ox knew he was slow, started his trek at night. The Rat saw the Ox depart and snuck on to his back for most of the journey, but quickly jumped off right before they both reached the Buddha. In any case, “THE” year for me is next year when the Yin Metal Ox makes its full cycle, but that’s another column next year. For the Year of the Nezumi, I wish you health, happiness and peace of mind. Shinnen Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”