Happy new year! In Hawaiian we say, Hau’oli makahiki hou and in Japanese, akemashite omedetoo. Growing up, Christmas was not the most important holiday for us but new year’s day was. Like the Scots, the Japanese have a big clean of the house to welcome the new year and thus, it metaphorically starts the year off with a clean slate. Traditionally, a large feast was prepared and put into containers that would last three days (because you are not supposed to work the first three days in January). Most items were salted, sweet or preserved somehow and meant to be served cool/room temperature. This feast is called osechi ryori and today in modern Japan, most people purchase their feast pre-made from restaurants, department store food halls and even 7-eleven! I have read of some osechi ryori costing as much as $10,000USD per person (CRAZY – I hope it comes with a diamond!)
Growing up, my grandmother used to make it and we would help out. I can’t recall what she made each year (as it would change) but what I loved most was the kazunoko (herring roe) that was served. They are expensive and hard to get so it was a special treat. Very crunchy and salty, I loved the texture more than anything, dipped in some soy sauce. The next best thing was kobu kazunoko (herring roe on kelp) – roe that somehow clung onto pieces of thick kelp. Black sweet soy beans (kuromame) were another thing that I remember well and various types of fish cakes and sweet egg.
The other mandatory thing to eat on new year’s day is ozoni – a brothy soup with ingredients that change depending on what part of Japan you are from and what your family likes to put in. In the Kanto area (Tokyo) the broth is clear while in the Kansai area (Osaka), they add miso paste. My maternal side of the family came from Shimabara in the south and their specialty is guzoni, ozoni that is filled chock-full of ingredients and eaten not just on new year’s day. The one similarity and obligatory ingredient is mochi or rice cake, for good luck/strength for the new year. A piece of grilled mochi is placed into the soup and it becomes sticky and gooey and oh so lovely! People who didn’t grow up with this texture may find it challenging (like my husband) but it is very filling and comforting for me.
This year, I spent new year’s day in Noosa, Queensland in tropical Australia. My friend’s parents have a beautiful holiday home on the river and invited us to spend a few days there. As a way to thank them, I wanted to cook a Japanese new year’s day breakfast (as best as I could) but it was quite a journey to figure out where to source the ingredients in a different state. Prior to going to Noosa, we spent a few days in the Gold Coast and stumbled upon a small Japanese grocery store in Robina but it was still quite a few days before the new year so I waited to go to another store closer to Noosa. This second store had more frozen goods and I was able to buy roughly what I needed to make this feast. My biggest mistake is that I forgot to buy dashi – essential in Japanese cooking – fish stock!! Needless to say, it was interesting making this in someone else’s kitchen in the tropical heat and without all the right ingredients. My grandmother was proud of me for being able to make this as many young Japanese have lost the skills of traditional cooking since it can so easily be bought. She doesn’t believe me when I say that it was her that made me a good cook.
Although the meal was not totally traditional, it turned out pretty well despite a few hicks – forgot dashi, sushi rolls were a bit small, rice for sushi was very sloppy (had to make it twice – over the stove with gas), and rolled egg was a bit overcooked. For the ozoni, I grilled the mochi on a grill rack instead of the traditional grill used in Japan and it did a great job. The kuromame (black soy beans) were made mostly out of my instinct and memory of what it should taste like but I had no idea they’d take nearly five hours to cook! I also think that they were the most challenging item as most people couldn’t work out whether the beans were for dessert or to be eaten with the meal. I guess it’s sort of like eating candied yams at Thanksgiving – many people who encounter it the first time think that it is a dessert and find it strange to be eaten alongside all the other savoury stuff.
I served two different sakes with the dish – one Australia-made and one Japanese-made and what was awesome was that the meal was eaten by a Scotsman, three Kiwis, one South African, one Australian, one Englishman and an American…now that’s what I call international!