I spent my first New Year’s holidays in Japan this year in my tiny town entertaining my traveling companion who came to visit me from America. I really wanted to serve something Japanese, but since most osechi meals are meant for a family of four or more and it was just the two of us, I decided to make two simple traditional dishes for us to enjoy. Because we would be traveling before New Year’s and fresh seafood would not keep that long, I settled on dishes with shelf-safe ingredients: zenzai (ぜんざい), a sweet New Year’s soup made of azuki beans (小豆) and toasted mochi (もち、餅), and sekihan (お赤飯), a celebratory dish of azuki beans and mochi rice (mochigome, もち米) (a glutinous rice used to make mochi, not the regular white rice served in most Japanese meals). *
Every meal has a story, and while the making of these dishes wasn’t particularly riveting, the purchase of the mochi rice really stuck (haha) with me.
Unsure of how far in advance I should start buying the items for this meal, I decided to just get them all in early December to be safe. I didn’t want to get caught in the midst of a mochi riot at my store, after all.** The smallest bag of mochi rice I could find in the area was 1.5 kilos, and I just wanted about 300 grams of the stuff. I asked the clerk if there were a smaller size, explaining that I wanted to make sekihan for two for New Year’s Day. She was kind about it, but she actually said, “We Japanese eat a lot of rice,” (我々日本人はご飯をたくさん食べます。。。), as if that somehow explained why there was nothing but family-sized portions in the store.
Cooking two meals with one ingredient can lead to some interesting logistical issues. Because the azuki beans would have to be cooked to mush for the soup but cooked till firm but done for the rice, I decided to use a can of tsubushi-an (つぶし餡), or chunky azuki bean paste, for the base of the soup instead of making my own. The recipe is based on the one from 100 Recipes from Japanese Cooking (usually available on jbox.com), but I reduced the amount of sugar.
As for the mochi, I toasted them in the oven range’s fish griller by heating the grill on medium-low and popping the mochi inside, then flipping a few times till the mochi were soft, toasted, and, if possible, a little cracked. I did burn the top of two, but they were fine after I scraped off the burnt part. The zenzai served four and was fine reheated, though I did freshly toast the mochi each time.
Serves 4. Takes about 10 minutes to make the soup and 5-15 to toast the mochi, depending on your method.
~400 grams canned (or homemade) chunky bean paste (azuki an, 小豆あん)
~900 mL water (depending on if you like your soup thinner or thicker)
1/2 teaspoon of salt (shio, 塩)
1-2 Tablespoons of sugar (adjust to taste) (satou, 砂糖)
4 small pieces of mochi (~5 cm in diameter), toasted (mochi, 餅)
Optional: kombu (kelp, 昆布) or other salty pickled vegetables as a condiment
1. Mix water, bean paste, salt, and sugar in medium pot. Heat over a medium to high flame.
2. Continue heating until the soup boils, then cook down a bit. Turn off the heat and let cool a bit before serving.
3. Toast the mochi–you can do this in the grill in the oven range on a medium flame (or perhaps a microwave oven) if you flip the mochi often. You can also hold the mochi over a flame with tongs or a makeshift grill until it is softened and lightly toasted. The hot toasted mochi makes the soup, so don’t skip this step!
5. If the mochi is large, cut into bite-size pieces after cooked. (Mochi is a choking hazard, so use your judgment regarding size.) Ladle soup into small bowls and place a toasted mochi in it before serving.
6. Serve with savory/salty sides like hijiki seaweed (ひじき) or Japanese pickles.
For the sekihan, I used Makiko Itoh’s recipe from Just Hungry, but reduced it to one third of the original recipe (1 cup of rice, etc.), and it served two perfectly that way.
As for the rest of Japanese new year’s traditions, we visited a famous local temple for our hatsumoude (初詣), and, later in the week, I bought a 福袋 (“lucky bag”) from Lupicia Tea.** A fukubukuro is basically a bag or box full of goodies from a particular store and tends to be available in the first week of January after the new year. You purchase the bag for a set amount of money; for department stores, this might be 5,000 or 10,000 yen. You don’t always know what you’re getting, but it’s supposed to be a good deal.
I didn’t have plans to get any fukubukuro, but when I saw Lupicia Tea had some for sale, I picked out a 1,500-yen box of “classic green teas.” Price-wise, even if the sencha were on the low-end of the price scale, I was still getting two bags free, so I was quite pleased.
In Japanese culture, dreaming of Mt. Fuji, an eagle, or an eggplant on New Year’s Eve is supposed to bring you good luck in the new year. We saw Mt. Fuji (rather by accident) in Kamakura that week; ate homemade baba ghanoush, a hummus-like eggplant spread, to give us a break from all the azuki; and saw some eagles flying overhead that week. I don’t know if that technically counts, but I hope it’s a sign of good things to come this year.
(Happy New Year! A big thank you to all my readers!)
*We actually arrived in my town earlier than planned and discovered the existence of smaller osechi platters at the store, but since neither of us wanted to deal with shucking shrimp, we went with the original plan.
**To be fair, I’ve never had the responsibility of buying traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner items, so I really have no idea how that works in the US, either.
**Shops are nationwide in Japan; the American branch has an online shop out of Boulder, CO, for the overseas customers.