Saturday, January 4, 2014

Celebrate the New Year with Traditions

The New Year's Day is the biggest event in a year for Japanese. The God of the Year visits our homes to bless us on this day. Our spring cleaning happens in winter. We clean and cleanse our houses inside out starting on December 13th to welcome the God and show our respect to him. We've believed that cleaner the house more blessing to receive. Our December has so many customs and traditions to properly prepare our homes for the New Year's Day.

We also prepare a feast for the God. We eat the feast, but we actually share it with the God. The idea is inviting the God as a guest of honor. Each dish has its own meaning for best wishes in different matters. One is for a long healthy life, another for great harvest, other for fortune, and so on. By eating them, you would get blessings. This is how we wish a great year on the first day of a year.

I tried to prepare some dishes with ingredients I can get around here in the US. Some are sent by my parents in Japan.

Let's go over from the top left to clock wise, shall we?

Rolled Cake
This is my original due to lack of ingreedients. The actual dish is called datemaki shown on the right (source: Rebunese Co.ltd,). It's rolled sweet omelette made with eggs and fluffy fish cake. It's soft and moist, actually tastes like cake. Kids love this. You never imagine it has fish in it. No fishy smell at all.
Datemaki is for a wish to establish in arts and sciences. The dish's rolled form indicates a hand scroll which contained great knowledge, wisdoms, stories, engineering and paintings. Ancient people leaned a lot from those scrolls. Well, I'm talking about the era long before Gutenberg. By eating the dish, we wish that we would learn and establish in subjects we pursue.
Renkon Manju
Steamed Lotus Root Cake with gravy
Lotus roots have a lot of holes. It is believed that these holes help to look through futures clearly. I believe each hole indicates an aspect of life, and more aspects you have, you could better prepare for each scenario to obtain successful futures. By eating lotus roots, we wish to have solid stable futures filled with peace and happiness.
The dish also has some shrimps. Shrimps have curved backs. Who else have curved backs? Some old people. A wish for a long life until your back gets bent by aging. Nobody really wants a bent back, but the wish originated to the time when people's average life span was 40. Considering that, you would understand they wished to live until they reached senior age.
Chawan-mushi
Steamed egg soup. Its texture is like a flan, but it's not sweet.
This time, I put shiitake mushroom, shrimps, a piece of salmon, chicken and a chestnut, which was alternative to ginseng nuts. I would say that every home and restaurant has their own combinations of what to put in the egg soup.
The yellow color of the eggs for wealth and fortune. It's hard to associate this yellow with wealth and fortune since it's so soft, but we consider yellow as gold color in certain cases. Now, you can connect wealth and fortune with yellow through gold. Shrimps for a long life described above.
I made this super size since it's my favorite. Generally, it's not served in a bowl. It's served in a small and tall cocotte to keep it warm. So, it looks much more sophisticated.
Kuro-mame
Slowly cooked black beans with brown sugar. Very tender and sweet. They must retain their black skins on. It requires a skill to do that. So, my parents sent ones already cooked and vacuum sealed. Lucky me!
The color of black to ward off evil spirits.
Mame is a bean/beans in Japanese. The sound of the word also describe diligence. Here, we are playing with the words. We eat this dish to wish we would work diligently through the year.
Kazunoko
Hering roes. They are marinated in a dressing made with dashi (broth from sea weed and shaved smoked bonito), sake, soy sauce and mirin which is a Japanese seasoning.
There are so many eggs in a roe. We wish to have many children with this dish. In a farming culture, having more children in a family means having more workforce, which is essential to succeed, even in the western culture. You get the idea. Nowadays, we don't really wish a big family, instead we wish the family thrives for generations.
Chikuzen-ni
Stewed vegetables (shiitake mushroom, lotus root, yum cake, taro root, carrot, and burdock root) and chicken in soy sauce based soup.
It seems each vegetable in this dish holds a wish:
Shiitake mushroom for ??? I couldn't find anything about this one. Maybe, they are in because they are simply yummy?
Lotus root for great futures as mentioned earlier.
Yum cake to satisfy my personal taste. My wish has already come true for this one, woo hoo!
Taro root for having many children since this plant produces many round roots, which looks like having a lot of children.
Carrot's reddish color (In Japan, we actually have bright red carrots.) for celebration of having a new year. Red and white is a combination of colors for celebration in our culture.
Burdock root for a small but long lasting happiness because this thin root grows underground very long and steady.
We tend to cut vegetables in certain shapes in occasions. It's popular to trim lotus roots like flowers, carrots to plum flower shape (Carrots in Japan are much bigger than ones in the US. They are much more suitable to add this type of details.), and taro roots to octagon shape. I only did it to the lotus root.
Kuri-no-Chakin-Shibori
I put this as an alternative to Kuri-kinton shown on the right. Its golden yellow is for fortune and wealth. I have one problem with this... too sweet. It's not just sweet, but "it makes me sick" sweet. Whenever I had a bite or two of this, I got very sick for the rest of the day. Please note that I also get sick with fudge because it's too heavy and sweet to me. That says if you are fine with eating fudge, you should be fine with eating Kuri-kinton. Unfortunately, Kuri-kinton is not for me. No wonder I don't have any links to fortunes. Now, I know why...
Kuri-no-Chakin-Shibori is actually a sweet in fall. In Japan, chestnuts' season is fall. It's a very simple sweet from smashed steamed chestnuts and a little bit of sugar. You can enjoy the delicate sweet flavor that chestnuts naturally have. This is my all time favorite. Interestingly, I found this is also called Kuri-kinton in Nakatsugawa, Gifu. Hum.
Tataki Gobo
Burdock root cooked in vinegar, dashi, mirin, soy sauce and sesami.
For a small yet long lasting happiness.

These are just some of them. There are so many more beautiful dishes. Some are region specific dishes reflecting ingredients produced in the areas. Some could be family originals.

You can enjoy most of them with room temperature. This is because not to make noise in the kitchen by reducing the use of it to offer a quiet and peaceful stay to the God. We also have traditions for the ways of serving of them. I'll talk about it another time.

After munching the dishes, we wrap up the meal with this soup dish is called zoni. This is one of dishes reflect their own families' styles. As you see my family's zoni has clear soup. Some families' have miso soup. In general, it is said that ones in Tokyo area have clear soup and ones in Osaka and Kyoto area have miso soup. Tokyo area has a lot of influences from the samurai culture. Some say that samurais didn't like the saying with miso which indicates failure, and sticked to clear soup for the jinx. Since my family is from samurai, it makes sense that our zoni has clear soup.

Zoni contains mochi which is cake made from sweet rice. This is a requirement of zoni. It cannot be zoni without mochi. The mochi in zoni is previously offered to the God. We believe the energy from the God of the Year stays in the offered mochi. By eating it, we receive his energy to get through the new year.

It seems all wishes about the family, but not for others. The celebration is generally kept in the family. This is a time for the family reunion. That's why everything is pretty much focused on inside the family. In fact, it is considered rude to visit others on the New Year's day. You don't want to step on the God where they are hosting him as a guest of honor and only guest.

I almost forgot to mention about these special chopsticks. They are called iwai bashi only used for celebrations. Both ends are narrowed, one end for you and the other for the God. Thus we share the feast with him. Once you start using one end, don't flip and use the other. This is a big no-no. If you do that, no blessing to you.

These chopsticks are made with willow. They are hard to break. We believe it is a bad sign that chopsticks break especially during a celebration. We use iwai-basi for the first seven days of a year, until January 15th in some areas. Once the New Year celebration ends, we get rid of them. New pairs will be prepared for next year.

I love Japanese culture full of traditions from religious and folk origins though it's not as cheerful as western ones. I always find interesting stories behind them. Even I grew up in Japan, I didn't have enough opportunities to learn all, and am still learning. The funny thing is we just do things without any doubts because our parents do them and our grand parents show those to us. We often don't know why we follow certain traditions. Once we find out their reasons and origins, things suddenly make sense in ourselves. We enjoy this type of "a-ha" moment in our life. And they turned to precious gems in our daily life. They help us to think what we do.

We, Japanese, are not so religious, but quite superstitious. In fact, we believe jinxes, visit shrines to make wishes, get cleanse and get married, and have weddings, funerals and anniversaries at temples or with monks. Shrines belong to Shintoism or other religions which worship other gods. Temples and monks belong to Buddhism. They are totally different religions. And, most of us are Buddhists. I can see some people would say that is unfaithful. But, what our ancestors learned about the way of living with appreciation, respect and care to others through those religions beyond the worships has been blending into our culture and become our rituals as traditions. Those traditions never forget respect to the gods and Buddha either. In fact, when somebody does a bad thing, we still say "Don't do that. It's so rude to the God/Buddha. You'd get punished by him/her." I've heard so many wars which people have fought and are still fighting for their faiths around the world. In our culture, multiple religions live together peacefully. Isn't this good enough to tell them that they don't need to fight?

It is also true that we've skipped or forgotten many traditions. The New Year's Day celebration is a good opportunity to think about those, and lean from the old. Amazing wisdoms are hidden there.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

新しい年によせて

あけましておめでとうございます。みなさんにとって素敵な一年になりますように。今年も徒然と好き勝手なことを書いていきますがよろしくお願いします。

静かに新年がやってきました。澄み渡った青空から太陽が白い雪を照らし、爽快な新しい年の幕開け。そして、極寒です。午後2時の気温マイナス4度、だけど体感温度はマイナス9度。そんな寒い中、キツツキがやってきました。赤、白、黒の色合いは丹頂鶴とお揃いで縁起がいいかななどと勝手な解釈で、みなさんにもご利益があればとお裾分けです。いいことありますように。

超大型の低気圧、ヘラクレス(それにしてもなんて名前だろう)が今日明日にかけて30センチ以上の雪をもたらすと警報が出ています。特にラッシュアワーに雪が降ると除雪作業が難航し大きな事故にもつながりかねないので、いつどのくらいの雪が降るのかを心配してます。雪かきのしんどさもさながら場合によっては停電もありかねないので、特に暖房やボイラー、レンジ(電子レンジじゃなくて調理器のほうね)を電気に頼る家庭では心配度も倍増。大雪警報が出たらまずはシャワーを浴びておきましょう。お湯が使えなくなるかもしれないからね。企業によっては大雪のために閉鎖するところもあるからそちらもみんなの関心どころといった感じ。

実質的な話としてどれくらい寒いかというと、土間が冷凍庫と化してます、一昨日までは冷蔵庫だったのですが…。

元日の朝、土間の棚に置いておいた鶏の出汁が凍っているのを発見!氷というよりはゼリー状、でもプルプル感はなく煮こごりというにはほど遠い。出来損ないの寒天って感じかなぁ。室温で置いておくとすぐに液体に戻ってしまいました。お雑煮の出汁の味に影響するかなと心配しましたが自分が食べる分には味に変化も感じず大丈夫だったようです。こんなことで年の始めを狂わされてはいけません。

何か清々しい気分にしてくれるものをと思って京都で購入したお香を焚いてみました。全然お正月らしくない部屋の中で燻るお香の姿はなんとも不釣り合いなのだけど、ほんのりと広がる優しい香りに気ぜわしい心がスローダウンする気がします。キャンドルではこうはいきません。

朝はお屠蘇とおせちにはじまってお雑煮で締めるところなのでしょうが、我が家の朝は何はともあれコーヒーです。新しい豆を挽いて、新しいフレーバーで新しい年を始めました。日本酒もお屠蘇もないのでひとまず酒粕で簡単甘酒を作っちゃいました。だって初詣に行ったら甘酒頂くでしょう?かなり神様度低いけど、ひとまず神社に由縁のあるもので代用です。

子供の頃からお正月の一番の好物がお雑煮。実家のお雑煮はお餅が隠れるほどたくさん水菜が入ってます。ご覧のとおりすまし汁です。出汁と鶏のスープを合わせ(鶏のスープは実家のオリジナルのようです。コクがでておいしいですよ。)お醤油で味付けし、味噌は使いません。関東風だと思っていたのですが、どうやら武家スタイルのようです

水菜や水菜に代わる濃い緑の葉ものが見つからなかったので白菜で代用。以前は春菊で代用したのだけど最近は見かけません。ちょっと寂しいので椎茸も加えてみました。いつもお餅は3個とお決まりだったのですが、さすがにこの年になると3個はきつい。でも、2個だと割り切れるから縁起よくなさそうなんだけど…。実家は丸餅ですが、お店で売られていたの角餅だったので今年は角餅です。

チャドはお餅が好きではないし野菜も食べないので、お雑煮はパス。マリリンとふたりで遅めの朝食に頂きました。のどに詰まらせるといけないのでさすがに犬にお餅はあげられないのだけども白菜と鶏肉のはいった出汁がお気に召したよう。おかわりしてそれでも食べ足りないらしく空っぽになった器をいつまでも舐めてました。目が「おかわり」と言ってます。ちなみにキノコ類は犬によくないそうなのであげない方がいいですよ。

マリリンも年神様のご利益にあやかります。今年は15歳になるから元気でいられるようにしっかりお願いしないとね。

寒いから外には行けないと言われてご機嫌ナナメだったものの午後に近所のサムとケニヤが遊びに来てくれたので、マリリンにとってまずはよい一年の始まりです。友達って大切。

そしてこれが今年の”なんちゃって”おせちです。盛りつけって難しい。重ねたり、積み上げたり、並べたり、離してみたり、間のとり方って日本文化の真髄みたいなものだから私たちの血の中に世代を超えて流れてるものかなって思うけどそうじゃないみたい。日々の暮らしの積み重ねの中で培われていくようです。暮らしぶりって毎日しっかり見つめてないとダメですね。

え〜っと、ロールケーキは伊達巻きの代わりです。巻物ということで学問や習い事の成就(仕事柄日々勉強なのです)をカバー、ご容赦くださいませ。

レンコンのあんかけに挑戦してみました。もう少し美味しくてもよさそうなもの。ちょっと研究が必要です。見た目はおめでたそうで結構気に入ってます。

「黄色で縁起がいいよ。」とこじつけて作りました。実は茶碗蒸しが無性に食べたかっただけなんだけど。だから特大サイズです。銀杏が水煮のパックしか売ってなくて以前買って美味しくなかったから、今回はなんと栗で代用。茶碗蒸しの中での味に違和感なく、食感は結構銀杏に似た感じでした。

里芋はホコホコと我ながら満足の出来栄えです。六角形に形を整えるところなんだけど、私しか食べないので省略、というか横着。

筑前煮のレンコンはちょっと飾り切りに挑戦してみました。ニンジンは直径2センチくらいと日本のもののように太くないので型抜きするにはちょっと小さすぎかな、というよりそこまで包丁の腕に自信がないので諦めて乱切りに。

叩き牛蒡は数日前に作って大正解。しっかり味が馴染んで美味しくし上がりました。牛蒡もシャキシャキのままです。

両親が立派な数の子を送ってくれました。黒豆も実家から送られてきた出来合いのものです。松葉でも刺してみたかったのだけど、家の前の松の木に手の届くところに枝がなくて断念。器で緑をカバーしました。

最後に栗の茶巾絞り。栗は蒸した方がよかったみたい。茹でたのとお砂糖を加えたのとで思ったより水分が多くなってしまいました。裏ごししたので滑らかに仕上がったのには満足。栗の20%のお砂糖を加えるとレシピにあったのだけど、もっと少なくても良さそうです。美味しくなくはないのだけど、砂糖甘さが強いです。

日本の仕来りって様々な謂れや願いがこめられていて素敵です。おせちやお重、祝い箸に至るまで、お正月関連のものにはそれが色濃く反映されててひとつひとつを学んでいくのが楽しいです。神事に由来したり、言葉遊びだったり、古の人々が言葉をとても大切にしそして洒落を忘れなかったようすが伺われます。そんな人たちの血を受け継いでいることに嬉しくなります。日本人に生まれてよかったと思うひとときです。