Eating into 2012, Japanese-style (or: ‘in the end ozoni’)

明けましておめでとうございます! Or rather, happy new year and welcome to Nipp’ntuck. It’s been a long time in the making, but we as resident obachan and ojichan are hoping to justify our greed and excessive restaurant bills in 2012 by sharing it with the interwebs.

Back in 2007, I welcomed the new year in Osaka, Japan during a year of teaching English (read: bluffing and getting lots of cartoons drawn of you). Even after a good 21 years of being half-Japanese, this was my first NYE in the homeland and so I dragged along a very jetlagged English boyfriend to sample the delights of a temple-based countdown.

Despite a growing penchant for Christmas-cuteness, New Year  (正月, shogatsu) is obviously still the focal point of the winter months in Japan. Essentially,it’s the time allotted for quiet reflection and the setting of goals, in reality becoming a royal excuse for a good faff around with food and, if you’re a kid, a nice envelope of money from grown-ups. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the latter never translated into the expatriate community.

Everything starts on New Year’s Eve, when you strap on thermals, stuff as many kairos into whatever pockets and crevices you can find, and head out to the temple. Far from a sombre religious event, the temples get turned into festivals, where you can find stalls selling the usual anything-yaki to some more interesting stuff like seafood and curries. That, and the opportunity to have a go and kingyo-sukui, a ‘game’ (of life and death) that involves handing over a few hundred yen in exchange for a paper catcher. You take said paper contraption and then hover of a large tank of scared goldfish, attempting to scoop them up into a battered plastic bowl. Take home your trophies in a plastic bag, provided the subway ride home doesn’t get them first.

Kingyo-sukui: Fun until you actually win something

However, in the spirit of a Japanese new year, you can’t help but indulge in a stripey cup of kara-age, a plate of steaming yakisoba and top it all off with cups of lager enjoyed next to a dodgy-looking heater:

Two greedy friends tuck in

To finish, a festival favourite – ningyo-yaki (sweetened batter cooked in fun-shaped moulds like Doraemon, of course). These little critters seem to be called something different wherever you go, but the big iron moulds and stripey bags of slightly-sweet fun are guaranteed childish good times:

Come midnight, the bells ring 108 times to rid us all of our worldly desires (except, of course, for a can of hot coffee for the train ride home) and everybody flings some yen at the temple.

And then comes New Year’s Day, less a day for an epic hangover and more for a dose of rather bland food. Ozechi-ryori (御節料理), largely-vegetable based because of its Shinto origins, consists of things like sweetened black bean, burdock root and konbu. One of the key dishes (and being a Japanese meal it involves about 50) is ozoni, a mochi (pounded rice cake) soup that varies from region to region. If you fancy it Sendai-style (where my family hail from), try out the below and fling a few pennies at your local religious establishment.

Sendai ozoni 

A real Sendai ozoni involves a dashi made of niboshi – tiny ickle dried fish – rather than kombu and bonito flakes. But if you don’t have any of these to hand (I certainly don’t), normal dashi will do. 

  1. Julienne the best part of a mooli and a few carrots
  2. Chuck them in a bowl and leave them outside for a few hours, or however long it takes for them to get frozen (not suitable if you live in Los Angeles). Bring them inside to defrost; this changes the texture.
  3. Meanwhile, heat four cups of dashi (see recipe below or use instant dashi granules) and add one tablespoon of soy sauce – set aside for the time being
  4. Grill the mochi until puffy; add to bowl of hot water for a couple of minutes
  5. In small bowls, assemble the carrot and daikon, placing the mochi on top with some sliced pink kamaboko and Japanese watercress
  6. Pour over the soup stock and tuck in
Making ichiban dashi
  1. Take a 5-centimetre piece of kombu and steep in a saucepan of cold water (about 4 cups) for 20 minutes
  2. Turn the heat on until it comes to a boil; switch off straight away
  3. Dump in a handful of bonito flakes and let it sit for five minutes
  4. Strain
As non-coastal types, you can make niban-dashi by saving the kombu and bonito flakes you just used, adding to a pan of fresh cold water and cooking over a low heat for 10 minutes, dumping in another handful of bonito flakes if needed. Strain away and it’s good to go.

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