on january 7th we japanese went frugal on our culinary front nationwide. it was 七草の節句 nanakusa no sekku (the festival of 7 herbs) and is customary for us to have a humble bowl of お粥 o-kayu (rice porridge) with 春の七草 haru no nanakusa (7 young spring herbs: some of them are edible common weeds and used to be easily found in meadows; we don't try to find any of them anymore). recently, this slow-cooking custom has become increasingly popular again. it’s never come that frugal, however. most japanese go to local supermarkets or greengrocers to get an exquisitely packed 七草nanakusa (7 herbs) for cooking 七草粥 nanakusa-gayu (seven-herb rice porridge) at home.
in my opinion, it doesn’t have to have 七草nanakusa (7 herbs). because, this custom is originally meant to give our stomach a break from rich festive foods. so, (some would think i’m a cheapskate rather than being frugal, but i love to see myself having a genius for substituting) i cooked my お粥 0-kayu (rice porridge) with chopped leaves of 大根 daikon (japanese white radish), which usually go straight down to a rubbish bin. the key to make it yummy is adding small stone-like dried pieces of お餅o-mochi (pounded rice-taffy/rice cake) that give it a better flavour and a bit of crunchy texture, which i learned from a tv chef.
what sort of festive foods did we eat for the new year celebrations, then? you might be curious about that by now? voila. i took every bit of the festive food home, stuffing them in one box (originally 3 layered) after my mother and i celebrated the first morning of 2009 together (my pictures are all in one "solo" versions, but, gee, my plate looks too greedy!). traditionally, we have a big breakfast on the new year’s day morning, which is called お節料理 o-sechi ryouri or just お節 o-sechi for short. and it must be served with お雑煮 o-zoni, which is rice-taffy (like dumpling) miso soup or clear broth soup, depending on where your parents come from. mine is kyoto style, made with white miso soup.
prior to the big morning, all women from young to old used to be slaving over a hot stove till quite late on new year’s eve. in fact, お節 o-sechi, containing lots of sugar and soy source, is designed to last for the 3-day period of new year’s celebration in order to lighten women’s workload preparing breakfast during the holidays. women no longer let ourselves slave away even on new year’s eve. we still do cook something we like, but not the whole stuff, while everyone certainly make お雑煮 o-zoni at home. more and more people get delicious お節o-sechi from restaurants or delis through department stores than before. in this way, we japanese women don’t need to be already worn out at the new year.
my mother, too, cooks only a couple of dishes and buys a semi-complete set of お節 osechi. i don’t cook anything since i’m not particularly good at japanese-cooking, instead, i can be creative for presentation. quintessential お節料理 o-sechi-ryori is usually arranged in 2 or 3 layered lacquer-ware boxes. every food must be beautifully presented. many prefer a complete ready-to-serve set of お節 osechi, which means one already in fancy plastic boxes, to a ready-to-arrange set. i dislike plastic boxes. so, i go hunting foliage such as fern and bamboo in the park before hand. arranging food in lacquer-ware boxes is my happy new year’s eve job.
as a rule, the top box is for sweetened foods, which is called 口取り kuchidori (starter). sweet things for a start? you might think i’ve mixed up hors d’œuvre with dessert. well, i don’t know the eating rules, exactly. i don’t know weather or not we should eat things from the top box first, either. every box is to show and be placed side by side on the table, anyway. incidentally, whenever i stayed at my grandmother’s home, in reminiscence, there was a peculiar tradition to have a cup of 煎茶 sencha (fine green tea) with some japanese sweets as the very first thing in the morning before breakfast. for a family tradition and celebration, anything goes just like that. it is ok to start with whatever you like. after all, you are the rules at your home.
besides, our festive foods don’t have to be too traditional. you can add anything to お節o-sechi. in my case this year, i asked my mother to have some roast duck (in the picture, with flavoured root vegetables my mother cooked), which went superbly with chilean cabernet sauvignon. oh, no, i’m no wine savvy at all, and i normally drink white wine, not red, but, instead of お屠蘇 0-toso (special sake), having red wine at the new year is my family's tradition. my parents even allowed me to have a tiny glass of sweet port to make a toast when i was little.
all in all, the new year is for everyone around the world to celebrate and carry on feasting day and night (and also morning for the japanese). but finally, the festive mood of the new year in japan will be disappearing after tomorrow's another festival. i am happily going back on my normal diet of bread, pasta and lots of vegetables as things are also going back to normal now that we’ve already started to hear of gloomy news again.
(keen on japanese new year’s celebrations? click here for more infomation)