For the past three years, I have celebrated New Year’s Eve by cooking and eating and drinking with an intimate group of close friends. Thanks to conversations that sparkle like the champagne we drink and fulfill like the warm, hearty food we eat, the night that I used to spend alone watching Conan’s “Central Time Zone Countdown” or Iron Chef marathons has become one of my nights of the year.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to spend New Year’s with my old high school buddies this year, on account that I’ll be in Hong Kong (and I certainly can’t complain about that). But if and when I have the opportunity to share another year-end meal with them again, I’ll have a few new tricks up my sleeve, thanks to a class I attended Sunday on osechi cooking お節料理, Japanese food customarily eaten to ring in the new year (Gregorian, not lunar).
Our venerable instructor was a four foot-tall woman whose twenty-year-old vitality betrayed her sixty-year-old features. She radiated knowledge and skill so generously that it seemed we only needed to stand by and bask in the effortlessness of her motions to absorb the principles and techniques of osechi.
Well, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement… and to be perfectly fair, our instructor did a good ninety percent of the work. But the recipes were nothing too complicated, and I do think our food turned out rather nicely.
First, we made a dish of carrots and daikon that had been cut into the shapes of auspicious symbols, such as cranes, turtles, bamboo, plum blossoms, bells, and hagoita 羽子板, a kind of ornamental paddle originally used in an archaic badminton-like game called hanetsuki 羽根突. In general, I’m not a big fan of daikon. I find their aroma somewhat acetic and funky. But these had been macerated in salt for an hour or two, rinsed in water, and then squeezed dry, removing its pungent odor and enhancing its sweet flavor. Apparently, the colors of the carrots and daikon – red and white – symbolize peace and cheerfulness. Red and white (kohaku 紅白) turned up again in a soup in the form of kamaboko 蒲鉾 – cakes of finely-ground fish – which are molded into a semicircular shape that represents the rising sun. The soup, called ozoni お雑煮, was made from a simple konbu stock and contained shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, mochi, chicken, daikon, carrot, mizuna 水菜, and yuzu peel. The sheer variety of colors, textures, flavors in that one bowl of soup made it exceptionally savorable and satisfying, meditative in its depth. It was a meal in itself, and the same can be said for chikuzen’ni 筑前煮, a stout-hearted stew of lotus root, gobo, chicken thighs, konnyaku, shiitake, bamboo shoots, carrots, and snow peas. I don’t know whether this kind of food was made for cold weather, or if cold weather was made for this kind of food.
We also sampled kazunoko, or herring roe, marinated in a katsuo dashi laced with a bit of dried red chili pepper. The characters kazu 数 and ko 子 literally mean “many” and “child,” respectively, and so the little yellow eggs are regarded as a sort of fertility charm, eaten in hopes that the coming year will be adequately, uh, reproductive. But I probably won’t be meeting any viking juniors anytime soon (darn!) on account that I didn’t really care for the kazunoko. Its flavor was perfectly agreeable, lighly sweet and salty, with an edge of heat from the chili and a flush of smoky umami from the katsuo dashi, but its texture was like eating tiny rubber balls fused together by some sort of 3M product. Each chunk of kazunoko would break apart with a rubbery crunch when chewed, but the individual eggs remained resolutely intact, which made me feel like each mouthful was never quite ready to swallow. I wound up washing down most of the kazunoko with gulps of tea.
But if the herring roe was the low point of our osechi class, then the high point had to be either kuromame 黒豆, sweet simmered black beans, or a salad of lobster meat and cucumbers.
Yes, that’s real gold foil on the beans. And yes, that’s a real lobster. And he had two friends. And the cooking class only cost one thousand yen. These two dishes alone made this by far the most cost-effective meal I’ve had since I moved here. Oh, and they weren’t just expensive; they were delicious. Especially the beans, which were plump, creamy, sugary, and rich, almost like a firm chocolate pudding. A homophone of mame (bean), written 忠実, means “diligent” or “robust,” so kuromame are eaten in hopes of a productive year. As for the lobster, well I don’t know what the significance of that is. But hey, you can’t go wrong with lobster, and in this case the firm, buttery meat was well matched with crisp chunks of cucumber and a creamy, mayonnaise-based dressing.
The moral of the story is: if an old woman offers you some dull black beans in exchange for ten dollars, accept them. They’re magical!