This year Oshogatsu is taking a slightly different turn at the Tatsumoto abode. Normally we engage in the frantic end-of-the-year housecleaning and last minute food preparation for both the eve and the day, then slide into the New Year with one simple task — finishing the traditional ozoni as the first meal of the New Year. The eve is usually the most hectic day with an early morning trip to the fish market for the choicest cuts of ahi followed by a trip to Hawaiian Memorial Park to leave flowers, sake and kaki for Ojiichan, Obaachan and Otoosan. Then a final trip to the market for mizuna (if you purchase too early, you simply end up with a bag of severely wilted greens) and kagami mochi (again, if purchased too early they harden beyond recognition and won’t sit nicely on each other).
However, this year we’ll be ringing in the year of the usagi (which technically doesn’t start until Feb. 3 since it follows the lunar calendar) at a wine dinner at Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar. And since wine dinners and multiple sobriety checkpoints don’t mix, we’re wisely spending the night (into the New Year) at a hotel. Of course this means that we can’t throw our traditional New Year’s Eve party on the 31st. So it’s being pushed to the 1st.
Breaking with tradition
What?! Cooking on the 1st! Isn’t that outlawed in the Motherland? Isn’t that why everyone cooks enough for three days before the New Year arrives? The traditional osechi ryori foods. Well for starters, I never subscribed to Obaachan’s explanation that if you cooked, or cleaned, or spent money on the 1st, you’d end up doing it for the rest of the year. Well, even if I prepped enough meals on the 31st for three days or even three weeks that still leaves 49 to 51 weeks of meals that would still need to be prepared throughout the year anyway. So by default, we all end up cooking (ditto for cleaning and spending money) for the rest of the year anyway. And you know what? I enjoy cooking! So I don’t mind doing it on a regular basis.
Ozoni is still a staple
I’ll still make my ozoni and consume it as my first meal of the New Year, the difference being when it’s made. I usually steep my konbu bonito broth the day before then chill it for the next morning. My seven veggies — mizuna, daikon, gobo, hasu, carrot, shiitake and enoki — are sliced and portioned likewise the day before then added to the simmering broth the next morning. Since we’ll need extra cooking time on the 1st, I’m making the whole soup (sans mochi) the evening before and chilling the whole thing. My recipe hasn’t changed for years and even I’m not sure why I do certain things like adding only an odd number of veggies. I did change my stock several years ago — mom always used canned hokkigai — but I disliked the rubbery quality of the meat so I now use canned scallops. But it’s still the first meal of the new year.
Beans, beans good for your heart
Kuromame is included as a traditional dish in osechi ryori because “mame” translates to health and hard work and beans easily handle the added shoyu, sugar or mirin found in osechi ryori dishes. It just takes forever to prepare! Well maybe not forever but three to five hours of slow simmering plus an overnight soak. Despite the time- intensive preparation, I still have it on my New Year’s Day table.
Its presence is due to a bit of culinary cheating. I used to simply purchase the canned variety since all it took was opening a can and pouring into a bowl. Time cost for the canned variety — virtually free. Flavor cost — what flavor? Unless you count the metallic can taste. Therefore I’ve switched my approach with traditional kuromame. I still cheat but it’s a little more flavorful. I purchase prepared beans from either Marukai or Shirokiya. The flavor is probably as good or better than I could do on my own, but the downside is that it leaves a large void in your wallet. Just a cup of prepared kuromame will set you back about $10 or so.
I’m unsure of the actual significance of consuming a bowl of toshikoshi soba right before the year turns. Some say because noodles are long, it contributes to our longevity. I’m skeptical of that reasoning since udon, somen and ramen noodles are also long, but the noodles in question are soba specifically. I’ve also heard that since noodles are intertwined in a bowl, consuming it with your family right before the New Year means your family will also stay intertwined like the noodles. Once again, udon, somen and ramen noodles are also intertwined in a bowl. Then there’s the “it’s for good luck and fortune.” That seems to be the generic rationale behind consuming any food or partaking in any activity when we don’t really know why we continue to do so. The most reasonable explanation I’ve heard is that soba is soft to the bite, meaning it breaks easily and by the same token, we want to break the bad luck or misfortunes of the previous year. Of course since Vino doesn’t serve soba, I’ll be having my soba on the first day of the year — not with traditional soba tsuyu, but tossed with sautéed lobster (the bent tail of crustaceans are supposed to mimic the bent back of an old man symbolizing longevity) and a mixture of cilantro pesto and sweet chili sauce.
O-toso is an herb-infused sake that is supposed to ward off illness during the ensuing year. In the Tatsumoto household, it wasn’t an herb-infused sake that was passed around but rather mom’s umpteen-year-old bottle of sake she used to cook that Ojiichan heated just south of the surface temperature of the sun in that old gold anodized tea kettle. It actually wasn’t the sake that prevented illness, it was the scalding temperature that immediately disinfected any surface it touched… like your mouth and throat. It’s a wonder that I re-tried sake at some point in my life after those experiences. Nowadays, I make my own o-toso with the help of tososan or medicinal herbs that come pre-packaged in a tea bag. I simply place the bag in the bottle of sake (a brand new bottle, not the cooking stuff in the pantry) about a week before the New Year, recap, then agitate the bottle several times a day. The sake takes on a peppery, cinnamon, ginger quality and while it’s okay as a shot or two (especially if it’s supposed to prevent illness throughout the year), it’s not something I want to drink on a regular basis.
Tradition, superstition or just plain habits
So as you see from my personal examples, there are a lot of customs I follow for no other reason than “that’s what I’ve been doing every year.” We all want to live a long, happy and prosperous life, but simply eating or drinking something probably won’t facilitate that. But then again, if engaging in those practices makes us happy and doesn’t hurt anyone, I say “go for it” and continue doing so. Remember that it’s not the years of life that count but the life in years. We all too often are in a rush for everything in life. A rush to grow up, a rush to finish college, a rush to get ahead in life. Life begins with birth and ends with death. Rushing in life simply rushes us to that ultimate end… and that’s one race I don’t want to win. Stop and smell the proverbial roses… or in my case, drink the roses. May 2011 bring everyone health, happiness and peace of mind. For the Gochiso Gourmet, 2011 takes on added significance as it’s my milestone year. Let’s just say that Hawaii 5-0 takes on new significance. Shinmen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.