table talk

Welcome the New Year with black beans

By Gina Colburn Goto

“Oshogatsu,” or New Year’s holiday, is traditionally more special to the Japanese than Christmas. In fact, it is the most important holiday in Japan. The new year means a fresh start, so the days leading up to New Year’s Eve are extremely busy in preparation of getting rid of things associated with the old year by cleaning the house from floor to ceiling, settling unfinished businesses and writing New Year greeting cards. Of course, food is a huge part of the holiday tradition, so in addition to the thorough cleaning of the house, the women of the household prepare a New Year’s feast known as “osechi ryori.”

Traditionally, “osechi ryori” is supposed to be made before New Year’s Day dawns, and to last for seven days without refrigeration. The grandmas and the mothers spend hours and even days preparing this big feast for the family. The young generation today may not know this, but the original reason for needing it to last for seven days is because there is a seven-day period of rest and non-cooking to appease the fire god, Kohji. He would get upset and cause a natural hazard if you made fire so early in the year. My Japanese grandmother would often talk about this myth.

In later years, this non-cooking period has been incorporated to give housewives a rest during the New Year holidays since they worked so hard until New Year’s Eve. I feel this “tradition” is slowly transforming again because “osechi ryori” is commonly store-bought these days in complete ready-to-serve sets. I guess that since not too many women stay up late in the kitchen preparing food, not many need to rest for seven days. The fire god may be getting upset.

Another interesting aspect of “osechi ryori” is that every little dish has a special meaning celebrating the New Year. Here are some examples:

-- "Kohaku-namasu” (marinated radish and carrots). Good omen embodied in their red and white colors. -- “Kuromame” (simmered black beans). Good health. -- “Kazunoko” (marinated herring roe). Fertility. -- “Tazukuri” (candied sardines). Abundant harvest. -- “Kurikinton” (mashed sweet potatoes with sweet chestnuts). Wealth. -- “Datemaki” (rolled sweet omelet with fish paste). The wish for many auspicious days. -- “Konbumaki” (kelp rolls). Joy and happiness. -- “Ebi” (shrimp). Longevity.

As I mentioned earlier, traditionally, all of these dishes needed to be kept unrefrigerated for about one week during the non-cooking period, which accounts for the heavy use of preserving ingredients like sugar, salt and vinegar, making most “osechi ryori” items extremely sweet, salty or sour. I think it is safe to say that “osechi” is more of a festive cuisine rather than gourmet food. Actually, I have never met anyone who says “osechi” is their favorite food… Nevertheless, the New Year celebration cannot start without these dishes.

That being said, I would like to share a very easy recipe for “kuromame” (simmered black beans) which is my favorite item out of the traditional array of “osechi” dishes listed above. It’s a bit time-consuming, like all of the other items, but I have arranged a traditional recipe to make it a little more manageable. The little sweet black beans are actually quite tasty; sweet but with a hint of saltiness. I like to pour a spoonful onto vanilla ice cream. You can also add them to a pound cake mixture or a bread dough. Wish for good health as you enjoy those beans. Happy 2015 to all!

Sweet Simmered Black Beans

300g dried “kuromame” (black beans) 1,200cc water 200g sugar 2 tbs soy sauce 1 tsp salt

1) Put water, sugar, soy sauce and salt into a pot and let simmer. Make sure all the sugar is melted. Turn off heat. 2) Wash beans well. 3) Place the beans into the pot with sugar/soy sauce/water mixture. Cover the pot and let sit overnight. 4) Next day, heat the pot. Put on high heat until it starts to boil. 5) Once it reaches a boil, keep the cover on and cook over the lowest heat for three hours. 6) After three hours, the beans should be tender. If not, cook longer. 7) When all of the beans are soft, turn off heat. 8) Do not touch the pot until it is completely cooled. May take an hour or more. 9) Put in a sealed container. Will last for two weeks in the refrigerator.

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"the women of the household prepare a New Year’s feast known as “osechi ryori.”"

does the fire god get angry if men prepare food as well?

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I heard recently from my Japanese tofu coop vendor that an iron screw (or anything made of iron) should be thrown in the pot when boiling black beans. Supposed to impart an attractive shininess to the beans. Going to throw in my iron paperweight when I make my batch o'black beans before new years!

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