When I was young, my brother and I used to receive otoshidama from family during the new year. These would be small white envelopes with cash given to children for the Japanese New Year. I can’t recall how much we used to get (my mom would always take the envelope and I wasn’t old enough to really care about money), but it was like a second birthday. Now we’re both way too old for that sort of thing (not that I would complain!), but there are a lot of Japanese New Year traditions that I hadn’t realized were culturally specific until I was older.
Like tearing down the Christmas tree and cleaning the house of all things “old” to welcome in the new (this is called susuharai). Wrapping paper, decorations, boxes and broken things all get tossed. I can’t fathom having any of the old December decorations lying about the place once Jan 1st nears, and I’m usually the first person to get it all down before a few days have past Christmas. My brother’s family does things differently since in his wife’s family it’s customary to put up the tree the day before and leave it up through January. Me, I have to get it all cleaned up because the New Year is all about starting new and fresh.
Growing up we always watched NHK’s Kohaku – a multi-hour long singing contest between the genders that feature all of the top music acts of the year. It ends right at midnight with everyone signing together at the end. We don’t have NHK but my mother still tapes it for us to watch later and I never go a New Year’s eve without hearing about who’s singing on Kohaku and what silly outfits they’re wearing.
But out of all of the little rituals and celebrations leading up to New Year’s, my favorite by far is the ozoni soup that tops off New Year’s breakfast. It’s a simple soup featuring gobo, carrot, spinach, tofu and mochi.
This year we made 10 cups of rice into mochi using sumo. Sumo (yes, our mochi machine does have a name), did a fairly good job, but it certainly worked really hard to give us the 10 cups of mochi. I don’t think we’ll do quite so much next time since I was worried it would hurt the machine (it’s the max amount listed in the pamphlet). I think 7 or 8 cups is plenty, but my mother wanted enough mochi to feed all of us this year and so 10 cups it was!
The mochi from Sumo was soft and wonderful in the ozoni. I ate three pieces of mochi and it was the perfect way to begin the new year. Apparently eating mochi brings good luck through the year and I can definitely attest to feeling like I had the best meal possible to start that good luck streak! The wonderful thing about the mochi from Sumo is that my hubby can even eat it and enjoy it. Usually he isn’t so keen on mochi in ozoni since he finds it too chewy to eat. We make fairly soft mochi by adding splashes of water as it “pounds” the mochi and he found that a lot easier to eat.
However you celebrate the New Year, I hope you have had a great start to 2014!
(Note: I make this any time of the year – it’s by far one of my favorite meals. You can use pre-made mochi just fine, but it will take a bit longer to cook than fresh. Be careful to watch your mochi as it cooks. Once it starts to “melt”, it can go quickly! This makes enough for two people – scale up for more.)
- 1 inch by 4 inch slice of tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (or however large you like your tofu)
- 1/2 cup gobo and carrot, diced into matchsticks
- 1 1/2 packages of Konbu Dashi
- 1/2 – 1 tbsp (or so) of soy sauce (possible more or less, depending on taste)
- 1 green onion, diced
- 1 handful spinach leaves, cut into 1 or 2 inch pieces
- Boil 2 cups of water in a pan with dashi.
- Add gobo, carrot, tofu and soy sauce.
- Bring to a boil and cook until carrot is softened (if water evaporates down significantly, add more to make up the difference).
- Add mochi (however many you want, but be considerate of your pan size and the water to mochi ratio)
- Once close to being done (mochi is soft all the way through), add green onion and spinach and allow to wilt before serving.