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It was, as anticipated, a fabulous celebration yesterday. I’m going to walk you through a Japanese New Year’s celebration (or at least, our family’s version of it).
First, when you see each other, you have to say, “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo douzo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.”
It takes about 2 and a half minutes to say it, and it’s like a race to see who can say it the fastest without fluffing up. Roughly translated? ‘Happy New Year. Please put up with me this year as well.’
We toasted the New Year with the herb infused sake/mirin concoction called otoso – it’s sweet, delicious and must be kept away from children! It’s not possible to drink it in huge quantities, as the ceremonial cup is almost flat, and balancing it to your mouth without spilling it, requires a clear head and excellent coordination – qualities not enhanced by imbibing vast amounts of alcohol.
The food, as you can see, is visually stunning – always served at room temperature – and is a labour of love by the chef. The black beans alone (soy beans simmered in sugar and served with these bright pink Chinese artichokes) take days to prepare – a complicated process of soaking, boiling, washing, soaking, simmering and flavouring. We joke that you are supposed to eat the number of beans that equate to the number of years you’ve been on this earth… Which is fine for the kids, but we had to have more of a 1 bean = 1 decade rule for the grownups!
The tiny fish you see here are dried and coated in a sticky, sweet soy sauce glaze, then sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. They are the kids’ favourite dish… and they somehow migrated over the course of the meal to take root in front of my daughter’s plate. It is auspicious, on New Year’s Day, to serve fish whole, with the head intact. It symbolises going forward into the next year with all your faculties, I guess!
The ozoni soup is served during the meal. It is a very clear, light broth – often with a flower shaped carrot slice and garnish of herbs or spinach floating in it. The main ingredient is a nugget of grilled pounded rice cake – a sticky, dense, chewy blob called mochi. We all picked up our bowls and waited for my mother to speak the traditional words before we could sup the soup…
“Be careful. Every year many people choke and DIE, eating mochi!”
It has become a standing joke that it isn’t New Year until we’ve heard these words! But ,actually, it is true that people, especially the very old and the very young, do choke on mochi every year. It has such a thick texture that it NEEDS to come with a health warning.
The components of nimono (simmered stuff) will probably vary from household to household. My mother favours chicken, vegetables, lotus root, konnyaku (I believe this is available in healthfood shops these days, called Konjac) and, my favourite - golden, flavourful ginkgo nuts. Lotus root is sold in most Chinese supermarkets, and it’s truly a superfood. It probably deserves a whole post to itself, but for now, I’ll make do with telling you that it’s an auspicious food because you can see, through the holes, all the way to the future.
After we could eat no more, the lids were replaced on the lacquer ware boxes, and we had refreshing green tea and matcha youkan (a sweet, firm jellied dessert made from bean paste and green tea powder). The boxes can be brought out for subsequent meals, allowing the chef to rest a little after all the exertions of the past few days!
Then we retired to the lounge, where the children had the pleasure of opening fukubukuro (‘bags of luck’) – a happy tradition of filling bright red bags with surprise presents. Around this time of year, Japanese shops sell fukubukuro, tightly sealed – like buying a lucky dip. (I have been asked, by the way, to clarify the pronunciation of ‘fuku’, which means luck. It is pronounced ‘fookoo’, although the ‘f’ sound is more like a ‘hoo’ sound blown through a flute. Clear as mud? OK then.)
We had a wonderful time, and I’m deeply grateful for the amazing feast that my mother manages to conjure up every year.
A couple of things we didn’t do this year…
On the 4th February, there is usually a ceremony welcoming luck into the household, and banishing demons from the home. As far as I can see, this involves the man of the house dressing up in big, furry pants as the oni (troll/demon), and everyone else chasing him out of the house, whilst throwing dried salted soy beans at him. I’m really not making this stuff up.
Sadly, Hubby forgot to bring his big, furry pants this year, so we had to give this one a miss.
I trawled through a lot of weird videos, but the one below is maybe the weirdest! It shows the ceremony of 'Setsubun' - bean throwing and ogre vanquishing. Enjoy.