Sunday, January 06, 2013

January 1, 2013 - HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Papier Mache Snake; Miharu Village Fukushima
-C.E. 2013  
-HEISEI 25 (Japan)
-BUDDHIST ERA 2557 (April)  
-YEAR OF THE (BLACK) WATER SNAKE (February - Lunar New Year)!

It seems that I've posting lots of food images lately, but as these relate to Japanese culture and have always been a passion of mine; here go some more.

Below are images from traditional Japanese New Year's meals. The foods are symbolic of good luck, long life, prosperity, etc. in their names (sometimes homonyms for other auspicious words) or physical shapes (image the shrimps curved back representing the bent backs of the elderly and symbolizing long life.)
parboiled ozouni ingredients

In the morning, the typical dish served is Ozouni, the central component being omochi, glutinous rice cakes grilled to a golden brown. These are served in either clear soup or miso soup, depending on the region of Japan (clear soup - Eastern Japan, miso - Western Japan) or the family's traditions.

Omochi (using the honorific 'O' here before 'mochi') stretches and is therefore symbolic of extending life and prosperity.
Ironically, the chewy nature of mochi also causes a few choking deaths each year in Japan and hearing those statistics is somewhat of a national pastime in the early weeks of the year. Let's hope that this year's tally will be 'zero!'

stove top grilling mochi
I usually cook ozouni for my family in Seattle and this year was no exception. Some of the traditional ingredients were not readily available this year so we had to make some substitutions. Instead of chrysanthemum leaves, shungiku  (lit. "spring chrysanthemum,") we used spinach; the daikon radishes in the market this year were non-existent or rotted so we left out the usual tortoise (another long life symbol) shell-shaped pieces of  daikon. Carrots were carved into plum blossom shapes to represent the first trees to bloom after the harsh winter.

We actually live in a rural area about an hour from Seattle and there are few Japanese people out here, and Asian cooking ingredients are fairly limited. However, we are very fortunate to have close friends who are Japanese and are also excellent cooks! Our friends put on a spread of some of the best osechi ryouri I've ever had and that's a tall and serendipitous order out here in rural American farm country.
Other good friends and food enthusiasts come and it's always a wonderful way to start the year. 
Osechi Ryouri is comprised of many items traditionally served for New Year's. It's a big job, akin to the Thanksgiving feast in America. However, due to the tradition of avoiding work on the first day of the year, much of the food is prepared in the day's leading up to January 1st. In the past, this required heavy salting and sugaring of foods as a preservative. Now, our friend uses a lighter hand and the balance is perfect. As mentioned, the foods have symbolic meanings for prosperity and long life. I'll skip the Japanese food dictionary here and provide a Wiki link for osechi ryouri definitions. Hope you enjoy the photos!

ready to eat...
boxes full of delicacies...
takuri, "rice paddy maker"

loaded tray with sake

Guests, including us, contributed some contemporary items to the meal. Our friends just came back over the pass from Eastern Washington and picked up some delicious Huckleberry Wine from Icicle Ridge Winery in Peshastin (next to the Bavarian Village-themed Leavenworth.) Everyone said it was "dangerously delicious" and it's lovely red color kept with the Japanese tradition of red being a celebratory color.  I made a Matcha Cheesecake using our Charaku Premium Organic Matcha. On the side was azuki cream made with anko (sweetened red bean paste) & whipping cream. It's actually a light dessert using yogurt, cream cheese, and whipped cream instead of all cream cheese. 
huckleberry wine!
matcha cheesecake w/azuki cream
Charaku Matcha in Lee Love chawan
Since there were ten people, including the kids; a number of chawan (tea bowls) were used for serving matcha at the end of the meal. I thought I'd feature this one, a Mashiko-yaki piece by my good friend Lee Love. Lee apprenticed with National Living treasure Shimaoka Tatsuzo and this was a bowl that was featured at his McKnight Residency Exhibition at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, MN. (I was the interpreter for his interview with Shamaoka-sensei when I was living in Mashiko in 1999-2000.) The exterior has a traditional Mashiko kaki glaze, and Lee has used some hakeme brushwork on the interior. However, it's the decorative crests on the bowl that give it special meaning to me this time of year. It features the family crest of Ooishi, the leader of the 47 Ronin. Lee and I are both fans of the story of the 47 Ronin, known as "Chuushingura" in Japan. This true story of the epitome of samurai loyalty concluded in the famous avenging scene in the 12th month of 1703. Since then, the epic has become one of the most popular themes in Japanese art and culture, with numerous TV & movie versions aired each winter; as well as frequent new releases of woodblock prints (now comic books,) plays, and even puppet shows. It is an end of the year tradition in Japan to catch one of these, or to visit the graves of the 47 Ronin at Sengaku Temple in Tokyo (as I have) and light incense for each on of them.  To let you know the extent of the story's reach in Japanese popular culture, watch for a new 47 Ronin movie to be released Dec 25, 2013 starring Keanu Reeves!
Happy New Year!

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