Leaving Aomroi in 2010 and returning in 2011 meant January was New Years party time with Atsushi. We went to his favorite restaurant (same as Christmas party) and had a traditional Japanese New Years feast. It’s important to try eat absolutely nothing for the day before these meals otherwise you won’t survive past the first few rounds. It’s always very tricky for me to figure out what I am eating, the meaning of the food and what it is often gets lost in translation. I did some research this time though and have a little more knowledge than usual.
It’s traditional custom for Japanese people to eat O-sechi (traditional food for the New Year) and O-zoni (rice cake and fish based soup) during New Year’s, just as Western people enjoy eating turkey and ham at Christmas.
SECHI originally means celebration. It is a celebration of the New Year, and one of the five times a feast is mythically served to the gods.
To begin we were served a delicious pallet taster. Believed to be pumpkin at the time I have realized after some research that it was in fact sweet potato. It is called ‘Kuri kinton’ and is made of mashed sweet potato with sweet chestnuts, the version we were served was topped with steamed shrimp and caviar. ‘Kuri Kinton’ is one of the Japanese New Year’s food (osechi). Its golden yellow color symbolizes prosperity.
Sushi is also a popular New Years food, even though it is popular all over Japan it can be very expensive so is considered a New Years dish. We had a sashimi plate with tuna, squid and salmon.
The second dish was seafood, I think it was sea bream we had, which represents auspicious fortune for the New Year. It also had Renkon (lotus root) served with it, renkon has holes in it, which we can see through and ahead to the new year.
The yellow of the dish is Datemaki which looks like the tamago-yaki (egg custard) you often find in a bento box (Japanese lunch boxes), but here it’s made with a fish paste and has a sponge-like texture. It’s quite sweet to taste.
The gold flakes are a New Years tradition and should be eaten for good luck.
The Nimono – Simmered Dish
Each person is presented with a simmer pot and a plate of raw fish (or meat) and vegtables. Nimono usually includes gobo (burdock root), satoimo (taro), renkon, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and more. Sometimes also Takenoko (bamboo shoot) which represents growing quickly like a bamboo shoot.
You light your flame and wait until the pot is boiling. Add the extras into your simmering pot for taste (spring onions and carrot/ginger I think). You only need to dip the fish into the simmering pot for a few seconds, the vegetables take a little longer. This dip is followed by a dip into your sauce bowl, followed by your mouth. It tastes amazing. The flavor is sweet and almost citric but yet so delicate.
The next dish was KO-HAKU-KAMABOKO (red or pink and white fish cake) which represents the sucessfulness of the rising sun. This one was made of Ebi (prawn). The shape of a boiled prawn is the same as an elderly person, and this represents longevity.
The Ko-Haku-Kamaboko was followed by Tempura. Tempura is not traditional a New Years food but more a winter one, so it was include in the menu for this reason. The tempura in Japan is so light and crunchy, it is very different to anything deep fried in Western countries.
In the old days, the difference between festive days and normal days were quite distinct. MOCHI (rice cake) was a food eaten only for celebrations, as was O-ZONI (rice cake and soup), one of the most important foods in Japan.
Mochi was a food mythically prepared for the gods, and communities often included it in soup. Thus, ozoni was created and each region makes it differently. Whether made with meat or fish based broth, and sweet or savoury, ozoni means good luck. The shape of mochi can be square or round. A round shape portrays a precious mirror from ancient times that has no sharp corners. Everything goes smooth like the rounded lines. If the mochi is square, enemies or bad luck can be beaten with its sharp corners. The former shape is common in Kansai (a region in the south central part of Japan), originating in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. Usually, the soup is made with white miso.The latter shape is popular in the northern part of Japan, in the Kanto area. This is where the culture of the samurai warrior originated. The picture shows the Kanto area style of ozoni with clear soup.
I found Mochi incredibly heavy, its also difficult to chew because it is very compact and after eating the load of food before it was very difficult to eat this. It tastes delicious but I just found it hit my stomach just that bit too hard.
Strawberry’s and custard for dessert which are not known for New Years but I raved about the strawberrys so much at the Christmas dinner that they were requested for me!