On the last day of the old year and into the new, our house takes on the delicious aromas of a Japanese restaurant – the smell of shiitake mushrooms, gobo (burdock root) and soy sauce simmering, intermingled with the tang of rice vinegar and the ever-present fragrance of dashi, the soup stock that’s a signature flavor in Japanese cooking.
As a third-generation Japanese American, my cooking is quite eclectic and more Western than Eastern. I use olive oil by liter, but soy sauce? Not so much.
Still, once a year, I go for tradition – I love that my family has a rich Japanese food heritage nurtured over three generations and I’m proud to carry it forward.
Here’s how it goes:
After Christmas dinner, we begin planning the Japanese New Year menu and shopping list. Steve shops for the ingredients at the supermarket and our local Japanese grocery.
A few days before the New Year, we make mochi – the Japanese rice cakes that are an essential part of the celebration. I have an electric mochi maker that steams the rice and pounds it smooth. Then we pinch off balls (it’s very hot) and shape the rice cakes, some with azuki bean filling and others kept plain. This is an all-afternoon job that requires at least one helper.
On New Year’s Eve we eat soba noodles for long life. The noodles are served in broth that I make from dashi. This year we experimented with a cross-cultural, two-part celebration, having the soba for dinner, then paté and rillettes with baguettes and Champagne later in the night.
New Year’s morning when I get up, I start on the ozoni, or mochi soup, for the family. The mochi, so pliant when first made, is now hard, so we grill them to soften, ladle on hot broth and top with soup garnishes.
Next comes the big feast, which always includes nishime, a kind of casserole of meat and vegetables seasoned with a soy sauce mixture, sushi, and namasu (raw veggies marinated in rice vinegar).
While we’re cooking, we’re also trying to clean our house and do all the laundry to start the New Year on the right foot! That’s part of Japanese tradition, too.
When the kids were little, Steve and I exhausted ourselves trying to get everything done. Now that the boys are grown, my solution is to divvy up the feast recipes so everyone makes one or two of the dishes. And we’ve relaxed our standards on cleaning. I accept that our free time will never match our ambitions (clean the fridge and stove but skip the cabinets) – it’s the thought that counts.
Here’s one of the simpler recipes we make for the New Year, Cucumber Namasu. Chris made it this time. It’s a refreshing side dish that’s my mom’s favorite.
Best wishes for a New Year of good health and great food!
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This sweet-tart and crunchy side dish is a cross between a relish and a salad; it goes perfectly with such savory dishes as teriyaki beef or chicken.
2 large English cucumbers
1/3 cup rice vinegar
4 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon finely minced ginger root
Cut cumbers in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Slice cucumbers crosswise in 1/4-inch-thick slices. Put cucumbers in a bowl and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Let sit for 10 minutes to draw out water from the cucumbers. Drain cucumbers in a colander and rinse well under running water to remove excess salt.
Use paper towels to pat cucumber dry and put into a medium bowl. Add vinegar, sugar, ginger and 1/2 teaspoon salt; taste and add additional salt, if needed. Chill namasu about 1 hour to allow flavors to blend.
- Add thinly sliced or shredded carrots for color
- Add a small can of drained clams
- Add crabmeat or if you’re on a budget, imitation crab
Note: for my namasu, I sliced a carrot crosswise in thin slices and used a cherry blossom-shaped vegetable cutter to cut carrot flowers, adding color and beauty to the dish.
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