Three Soups for New Year

This is the longest I've gone between posts since I started my blog. Yikes! I'm not sure how the time got away from me, but between several of my family members getting the flu and catching up on my day job after the holidays, I stand before you almost two weeks absent. I can only hope that I have enough readers that some of you are on tenterhooks for my next post. Well, I promised to write about Japanese New Year and that is what I shall do.

Christmas may be the big deal in America, and other western countries, but New Year is pretty widely celebrated too. If you don't celebrate it by going to a party, you might at least stay up until midnight watching a movie, maybe with a friend or relation (or if you’re like me, wishing a Happy New Year to your cat). But even if you do nothing--asleep at eight o'clock and simply putting up the new calendar the next morning--people won't look at you like you've got two heads, as they might if you don't celebrate Christmas or one of the other winter holidays. In Japan New Year is the holiday for people to travel back home and celebrate with family, Christmas being the time for parties. 

You might be familiar with Chinese New Year, a day which is determined by the phases of the moon rather than a set date. It usually falls somewhere between January 20th and February 21st and marks the beginning of the new zodiac year. (If you’re interested this year it is on February 8th and it will be the year of the Fire Monkey.) Most other asian countries also used to use the Lunar New Year and China, Korea, and Vietnam still do. Japan’s break with this tradition came in 1873, after the Meiji Restoration. I’m not sure why they moved to the Georgian calendar, though this period in Japan’s history was one of Western influence and modernization. (It is interesting to note that Japan is still using the period system. This means that the new year in Japan is not 2016 but “Heisei 28” as Emperor Akihito has been reining for 28 years.)

New Year postcards

New Year postcards

So what does your average New Year look like in Japan? I’ve all ready said that it is a time to travel back home, and it is in fact the busiest travel day of the year. But if you won’t be seeing a family member, you can send them a postcard. The American equivalent would be sending out Christmas cards but in Japan they have special stamps to mark out a New Year postcard which will guarantee its delivery on January first. Usually these cards have the picture of the new zodiac animal or a printed greeting, or both. Another tradition is otoshidama, the giving of money to small children by older relatives. The amount varies depending on the age, but it is generally given in a pochibukuro, a special decorated envelope. 

On New Year's Eve there are many things to do, either staying in to watch Kōhaku Uta Gassen (a special TV show with pop bands and a red and white team competing for points), playing games like fukuwarai (a bit like Pin the Tail on the Donkey meets Mr. Potato-Head), or listening to Beethoven’s Ninth (which has become the official song of the Japanese New Year). 

If you are feeling more spiritual you can go to the local Buddhist temple for the bell ringing. Just prior to midnight the bell is rung 107 times, then after midnight arrives it is struck once more, this represents the 108 human sins in that tradition. This is a popular way to spend December 31st, especially at The Watched Night bell, in Tokyo. On January first millions of people visit Shinto shrines to pay their respects to the Kami, ask for good fortune in the coming year and make their resolutions. 

My favorite tradition of the Japanese New Year is watching the first sunrise. I happen to love watching the dawn and often wake up early to see it. There are several places in Japan that have special views for this observance, but the most popular is the sunrising over Mount Fuji. Here in Maine, this is not an unknown practice and many people climb Cadillac Mountain to watch the first Sunrise on the Eastern Seaboard. This is about an hour and a half from my house and if I had more confidence in my ability to climb a mountain in the dark I might have joined them. Instead I watched the sunrising from a flatter point.

An example of Osechi-ryori, I did not make this.

An example of Osechi-ryori, I did not make this.

But this is a food blog, and I’ve already taken a detour from my promised subject, the food of a Japanese New Year. Osechi-ryori is the traditional food eaten on New Year, and it involves a selection of dishes that are served in a special box, a bit like bento. These dishes usually include seaweed, fishcakes, kurikinton (mashed sweet potato and chestnuts), sweetened black soybeans, simmered burdock, and sweet rolled omelettes. These dishes are all meant to be eaten cold. I read a few years ago that this was because most Japanese people avoid cooking on New Year because of the superstition that you shouldn’t burn or cut yourself on that day. I was unable to confirm this, but I thought I’d mention it anyway, as I am really superstitious on January first, saying things like “Oh no, I can’t get the lid off this jar, I hope this isn’t a sign of failure for 2016!” 

Just One Cookbook had a wonderful selection of recipes for osechi-ryori, but I didn’t have the time to make a bunch of dishes so I settled on the other traditional foods, Toshikoshi Soba, Ozoni, and Nanakusagayu. These are the three soups eaten prospectively on December 31st, January 1st, and January 7th. 

First comes Toshikoshi Soba. The preparation varies from region to region but usually it is a very simple recipe with a dashi broth, soba noodles, and a few toppings. I made mine using a recipe from Just Hungry and simply topped it with baby spinach. The plan was to also top it with an egg, but someone ate the last one for breakfast without me noticing. The only way I’ve eaten soba in the past was as a chilled dish, but I think I prefer them hot and in a soup. Maybe this is just my western brain clutching to the familiar, but I think it suites the strong buckwheat flavor better. 

Next was Ozoni, the breakfast of the first day of the year. Mochi, a rice cake made from sticky rice that has been pounded into a gelatinous state, is traditionally made on New Year and Ozoni is a soup made with baked mochi. For this recipe I turned to Japanese Cooking 101, who suggested using prepackaged mochi. My local co-op sells a couple different flavors which are frozen, but when you cut them up and bake them they puff up and make a delicious snack with a crunchy outside and gooey inside. For this soup I chose the brown rice and sesame mochi, which complemented the plain dashi broth. Aside from that the recipe called for kamaboko (a type of fishcake), carrots, and daikon radish. The last two were fine, you can always get both at the grocery store, but kamaboko is a little harder. In fact, it was impossible unless I wanted to drive three hours to get to the closest Asian market. Oh well, the mochi was still tasty and though I am familiar with the strange texture, eating it with soup was a new experience. 

Lastly, on the seventh day of the year comes Nanakusagaya, seven-herb rice soup. For the stomach that has been working hard on all the holiday food, this dish is supposed to be restful and cleansing. And it would certainly be difficult to think of a meal that was easier for your stomach as it is more or less a rice porridge with seven different types of dark leafy greens. I went back to Just Hungry and found a recipe that uses parsley, spinach, mache, arugula, daikon sprouts, swiss chard, and kale. I couldn’t get mache or the sprouts so I replaced them with beet greens and cabbage. If I hadn’t spent the day cleaning with no lunch I might have enjoyed this dinner more, but all I wanted was a large steak and some roasted potatoes. I was not satiated by the fairly bland porridge. However, I cannot deny that it was pretty light after the heavy meals of the holiday season. 

So I did manage to follow a couple of Japanese New Year traditions, I even cleaned the whole house, as they do instead of spring cleaning. Next year I’ll try giving money to my niece and sending out postcards as well. I hope that your own New Year was fun and that you have made lots of good resolutions for 2016 (or Heisei 28). Now that we’re past the big holidays I have made it a resolution to focus on the healthy foods of Japan, so you can look forward to that. I promise I’ll get to it soon. 

Until next time, Happy New Year!

P.S. Today, January ninth, would have been my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. She passed away several years ago and I miss her very much. An amazing cook, an avid reader, a writer, and my constant cheerleader, I know that she would have enjoyed this blog very much. I would like to dedicate this post to her. Happy Birthday Meme! 

Me and my Meme in 1991.

Me and my Meme in 1991.