Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Year - Before

Once again a New Year has been inflicted upon us. The glue on the final in-store Christmas tinsel had not yet time to set before it was all yanked down to be replaced with traditional New Years decorations, while harmonica-renderings of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer got cut mid-wail to be replaced by endless loops of Koto music.

The nice thing about having a real New Year holiday is how neatly you can fit a lot of symbolism into it - finishing things up before the big break; starting things anew after. Both households and companies tend to do a major housecleaning before the holiday; smaller shops and restaurants may close up completely and spend a day cleaning the whole place, top to bottom. Then, after the New Year, you can start up again in fresh, clean offices and shops.

A local restaurant cleaning up the place.

The New Years food (called "osechi ryouri") is a reflection of this. It is cold food, prepared before the new years eve but eaten afterwards. Unlike Europe you do not have a feast on New Years eve in other words, though some people with big appetites and little patience cheat a bit and start on the osechi ryouri after midnight rather than wait to the next morning. People can spend sometimes a week beforehand making various traditional and not-so-traditional dishes, in order to (theoretically) not have to cook at all for a few days in the beginning of the new year.

Fugu Greengrocer
Huge numbers of people were milling in Kuromon market, buying up ingredients for the New Years holiday. Fugu - the famed poisonus-but-safe fish - was being sold everywhere. Not my favourite; remove the "it can kill you!" bit (which is rather hyped) and it's a nice but way overpriced firm white-meat fish.

We did not win ready-made osechi ryouri this year for some inexplicable reason, so we made our own. It's fun and you get to eat only food you like. We bought a lot of the food of course (nobody makes their own kamaboko or konnyaku, though it would be fun to try once), but we did make kuromame, homemade soba (buckwheat noodles - I'm making a separate post about that) and XXX among other things. The kuromame ("black bean") turned out really well; it is a kind of dried gray bean that is soaked, then simmered in a dark soy and mirin-based sauce for a day or so together with a rusty nail (the rust helps turn them black). We had to scour a torn down building nearby to find a suitable nail, actually - pre-rusted nails are not a common article in kitchen supply-stores it seems. We've saved the nail for next year.

Our New Years food. The tower thingy on the upper left is mochi (sticky rice) and a mikan, and is a traditional decoration. The miso soup is also traditional style, with a very light, sweet kind of miso, root vegetables and mochi (which manages to kill people every year). The flower-like slices on the bottom left is kamaboko (baked fish paste - think "fiskbullar" for Swedish speakers) made with a boiled egg in the center. On the upper right there's kuromame (black beans) and gomame - dried fish sauteed in soy sauce, mirin and sake. Gomame, by the way, is possibly my favourite thing on this table.

The black beans described above. I spent quite a bit of time getting this picture so I wanted to show it off (you try to take a picture of something black and glossy against a white background).

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