THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Oshogatsu of the past

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALWell, another year has come and gone in what seemed like a blur in time. This is partially due to that theory of relativity — since I’m down to that last third of my personal movie, with the credits waiting to appear in the wings, every year seems to be progressing a lot faster — though I think a lot of it had to do with probably the worst election year that I’ve ever experienced, where the country now seems to be regressing to a point in time that we never want to go back to even if it means I’ll be young forever …
Anyway, there’s a time in the past that’s still welcome, and is still ingrained in my memory bank like it just occurred last year. Those celebrations in the past of welcoming in the New Year!

The Anticipation on the 31st
The last day of the year was a bigger event than New Year’s Day for the Tatsumotos, as our family always hosted a New Year’s Eve party, celebrating first with Mom’s co-workers at Kahaluu Elementary School and Dad’s University of Hawai‘i football tailgate gang. Of course, as the evening wore on, my homies from high school and newer friends from the University of Hawai‘i would show up to end their year at the Tatsumoto abode.

And along with an array of sake and Champagne, a constant for these celebrations was Mrs. Takamiya’s local-style Scotch eggs (boiled eggs wrapped with teriyaki meat); her konbu maki stuffed with shoyu pork, carrots and gobo (burdock root); Mrs. Oshiro’s futomaki (Mom always requested her sushi as the Tatsumoto sushi filling was never centered); Obaachan’s hot crab salad; and Mom’s kazunoko (herring roe) and chicken hekka.

What the heck is hekka? Hekka is one of those dishes that seems to have purely island roots. It’s basically a sukiyaki that’s uses ingredients that can be found in the 50th. I mean, we have our own tofu (though we’re now down to just two producers), watercress, green and round onions are grown locally and we can even find takenoko (bamboo shoots) in our own backyard. And although locally-raised poultry has experienced a recent resurgence, there are many Jidori (chickens from the ground) roaming wildly through many suburban neighborhoods. But it’s one of those dishes that always found its way to the Tatsumoto dining table on every New Year’s Eve.

Chicken Hekka Sauce:
3/4 cup shoyu
1/4 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
Salt to taste
MSG to taste (optional)

Ingredients:
1 lb chicken, thinly sliced
1 cup onion, sliced
1 cup bamboo shoots, sliced
1 block tofu, cubed
1 bunch watercress, cut to 1 1/2 to 2 inch length
1 bunch green onion, cut to 1 1/2 to 2 inch length
1/2 cup dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and thinly sliced
1 cup konnyaku, either noodles or thinly sliced
Combine the sauce ingredients in an electric wok or skillet and set on medium heat. Once the sugar melts arrange the rest of the solid ingredients except the greens in the wok/skillet and keep on a light simmer just until the chicken is cooked. Once the chicken is cooked add the watercress and green onions and simmer for another two to three minutes.

Tatsumoto-style ozoni. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Tatsumoto-style ozoni. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

The First of the Year
Though the Tatsumotos didn’t follow very many Oshogatsu traditions, one of Dad’s rules was that ozoni had to be the first thing you consumed in the New Year. Thus, to this day, New Year’s Day is the one day I don’t drink any coffee upon arising, as I first have to finish my ozoni as the first meal of the New Year. And by the time I’m done consuming several bowls of ozoni with several mochi in each bowl, along with untold bowls of kuromame (black beans) and sushi and sashimi, I’m literally too full for even a small cup of java.

However, with New Year’s Day celebrations of the past, Auntie Corinne always felt she received the short end of the stick since the Lees always hosted the family New Year’s Day party and it seemed that most of the younger generation simply wanted to sleep off the “excesses” of the previous night, so her cooler full of beer remained full for most of the day. But once that initial shock (along with rehydration) of the previous night’s excesses cleared, I always found space to indulge in Auntie Itamura’s fried noodles, kim chi and mochiko chicken, along with Auntie Corinne’s macaroni salad made exclusively for me (she always made a separate container labeled with my name since I didn’t care for celery way back when) along with a beer or two. Of course, the family New Year’s table was also covered with sushi, sashimi and a large snapper, usually a whole onaga (Long-tail Red Snapper) simmered in shoyu, ginger, sugar, sake and mirin with the braising liquid served with somen noodles since there “had” to be some type of red colored fish served on the first day of the year for good luck.

My Current Table
On the evening before the New Year, I’ll have a bowl of toshi-koshi soba (year-crossing buckwheat noodles) to “break” any of the bad luck of the past year (and believe me, both 2015 and 2016 haven’t been great years by any stretch of the imagination), then have my obligatory o-toso or sake infused with medicinal herbs just at the stroke of midnight.

Kuromame. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Kuromame. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

On the following morning, my Oshogatsu table still has a few of the basics; a pot of ozoni (go to my blog site for basic instructions: http://ow.ly/jjgh307jzug, some homemade kuromame along with sushi and sashimi. I’ll also sample a nice bottle of Daiginjo sake, as well as a nice bottle of Champagne, probably with a fair amount of iced water to replenish fluids lost the previous evening. I stopped consuming kazunoko or shishamo (saltwater fish) on the first of the year as anyone past the half-century mark shouldn’t be fruitful over the subsequent year (including Sir Mick) as well as lobster or shrimp as it’s not about the number of years of life that matters, but the life in those years we are blessed with. And especially in the Year of the Rooster, I hope that all of us in this country comes to its senses and realizes that we’re in it for the long hall, that it’s not Red vs. Blue, privileged vs. the masses, gay vs. straight, this religion vs. that religion, but that there is just one group, us, all Americans that need to move forward. So once again, I hope the Year of the Rooster brings all of you health, happiness and peace of mind. Shinmen Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University 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 gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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