せち料理 (osechi ryōri) involves a lot of foods that we eat because they're puns. I only understood a couple of them, and I still haven't been able to figure out which characters they refer to, but it's okay because neither was the Japanese friend who came over. So even though we don't know why, we know that we eat black beans (kuromame) because mame also means "health" and kuro... I don't know. An old Japanese lady explained it to me once but I forgot. And we eat chestnuts (kuri) because kuri means "success" and we eat kelp (konbu) because konbu means "joy." And also because it's tradition, and a little bit of marketing.
I adapted all of these recipes from a particularly good collection at about.com - I substituted a bit, though - mostly using the non-alcoholic honteri in the place of mirin and sake.
Kuromame - black beans
I started these the night before. While I was getting ready to soak the black beans, I found a ninja hiding in the bag.
He almost managed to sabotage the entire pot of beans, but I didn't let him!
- 1 cup black soy beans
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
Preparation:Wash black beans. Put water, sugar, salt, soysauce, and baking soda in large deep pot or iron pot. Bring to a boil. Stop the heat and add black beans. Leave it over night, or about 8 hours.
Put the pot on high heat and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to low. Skim off any foam that rise to the surface. Cover the pot and simmer the beans on low heat for 5-7 hours, or until beans are softened. When the liquid decreases, add some water. Stop the heat and let it sit until cool.
Mmm! Sweet beans! (cultural experience, friends. Cultural experience.)
Kurikinton - mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts
The next dish involves my beloved satsumaimo and chestnuts. These are cooked into a beautiful concoction that is yellow to encourage the proliferation of gold in the coming year :) It's supposed to be sweet, but the recipe asked for an awful lot of sugar.... I cut the sugar in the original recipe in half. But you know what? It was still too dang sweet.
- 1 lb. satsumaimo (sweet potatoes), peeled and cut into 1 inch thick slices
- 1 jar of simmered sweet chestnuts in syrup (8-12 pieces of chestnuts)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 Tbsp honteri
Soak satsumaimo slices in water for about 15 minutes and drain. Cover in water in a deep pot and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and simmer until satsumaimo is softened. Mash them and add sugar and honteri and mix well. Stir well on low heat until smooth. Add chestnuts and simmer for a few minutes.
Kinpira Gobo - stir fried burdock and carrot
The next dish is the most beautiful thing in the world, excluding my lovely face, of course. But if my face were a dish, my face would be kinpira gobo.
First, you find gobo at an asian market or a savvy white people market. Then, you chop it into tiny little strips, which takes three hours and gives you a blister. Why do you do this?
We don't know. Probably something to do with pride.
- 1/2 lb gobo (burdock root)
- 1/4 lb carrot
- 1 tbsp soysauce
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp honteri
- 1 tsp sesame seeds
- 2 tsps vegetable oil
Preparation:Lightly shave the gobo skin and shred gobo into very thin strips. Soak the gobo strips in water for a while and drain well. Peel the carrot and cut it into short and thin strips. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan, and fry gobo strips for a couple minutes. Add carrot strips in the pan and stir-fry them. Add all seasonings in the pan and stir-fry well. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle sesame seeds.
Nimono - stew
At this point in the afternoon, I had a couple dishes left I could cook, but I decided to go with the one that would cook on its own while I attended to everything else. Nimono is a generic term for stew, and the basic broth is made with dashi. This is a slightly oceany broth that makes your house smell like the pots of oden that bubble on the countertops of 7-11s in Japan. And then you get all nostalgic.
I made my own recipe here - dashi broth with soy sauce and sugar (I was getting rather sick of sugar at this point, but I did it to be authentic.) And then I just threw in the things I had extra laying around. Those things included carrots, lotus root, fried tofu and hijiki. Who has these sorts of things just extra laying around? Very odd ducks, that's who. It's ok - it keeps my roommates from being tempted to eat the food on my shelves. Hijiki, by the way, is the healthiest of the seaweeds. Lots of iron. Just about as much iron as eating rusty nails, and slightly more palatable!
Kamaboko - ungodly pink product of the sea
We also served kamaboko with the meal, which is among the weirder things that human beings make out of fish. But it's festive!
Datemaki - rolled sweet omelettes
And these were rolled sweet omelettes. Eggs, with a little soy sauce, some sugar, some honteri and a dash of dashi. ;) They work the best with a very non-stick pan. Pour out a thin layer and wait until it's almost set, and then start to roll it up with a couple deft spatulas. When it's one long roll at the edge of the pan, lift it up a bit and pour another thin layer underneath. When this gets set, roll the new layer around the roll. Then transfer the whole thing to a bamboo sushi rolling mat and roll it up and let it sit for 5 minutes. Let it cool, and then slice it. You would think I would have taken pictures of this weirdly complex cooking method but why on earth would I have had the good sense to do that?
Shiyoyakizakana - grilled fish
Finally, I made something that's Japanese, if not actually traditional せち料理. This is shiyoyakizakana, which sounds like a crazy samurai or a WWII bombing plane, but actually just means "salted grilled fish." In Japan, you buy fish that are filleted open and presalted and you just stick them in the little tray in your gas range that they engineered for grilling fish. (And who is the most civilized country in the world, I ask you?) Here, though, they don't come so handy and ready to go. But I got tilapia fillets at Macey's for 48 cents each (!) and so I just soaked them in salt water to help them thaw for a couple hours and then stuck them in a glass pan under my broiler. And look, my beauties. The most delicious thing around.
Overall, it was a lovely experience. But let me interject something about osechi ryōri. The sugar. The sugar gets to you. Japanese people don't even like sweet things. Overly sweet things. They can't eat American candy (and who can blame them?) and their candy is this vague hint of sweetness. But they do enjoy the vague hint of sweetness in everything, and by the time you're done with the meal you just want some dang salt. There is plenty of salty food common in Japan, but most of it, now that I think about it, is from China. Thank goodness for China, though. Heavens. The intervention of the Middle Kingdom was a blessing. It brought a written language to Japan, the civilizing influence (?) of Buddhism and a little culinary relief for those of us on Team Salt.
I enjoyed the New Year and the excuse to stay home all day to cook, and also the fact that Japan moved their New Year to coincide with the Gregorian calendar because that means we get to do this all AGAIN, China-style, in February.