Good Luck Sake

I have the roasted soy beans ready. Only the onimask (demon mask) for my husband is missing. My girls tried to make one, but unfortunately it was neither scary nor durable and did not stand the test of time. So we have about another week to get fully ready for Setsubun.

Setsubun accessories
Setsubun accessories

Setsubun is the break of the seasons, which today is only celebrated at the break of winter, on February 3rd. Referring to the Japanese lunar calendar Setsubun was previously thought of something like New Years. As such in the Setsubun ritual the evil spirits of the old year are expelled and the good spirits for the year to come are invited in. In our house my husband gets to be the oni, representing the evil sprits and my girls throw fuku mame (roasted soy beans that are called ‘fortune beans’) at him, shouting “Oni wa soto!” (“demons out!”). But remember – nothing goes to waste, so afterwards they go outside, pick them up again and to my ‘delight’ throw them back in our living room shouting “Fuku wa uchi!” (“luck in!”). To complete the luck, everyone gets to eat the fuku mame. One for each year of one’s life and in some areas one more for the year to come.

This year I have counted 866 soy beans. And even if, I would deny that we are that old, so no way they can all be eaten in our little Setsubun ritual. But they serve wonderfully as beer or sake snack. So for this year I decided that we will enjoy them with a chilled glass of Tsuki no Katsura ‘Yanagi’ Junmai Ginjo from Fushimi in Kyoto, which I will introduce in detail in my next post.

Takuan Challenge 2015/16 – Part 1

The Japanese kitchen is very seasonal and in its traditional set up only uses fruits, vegetables and fish that are available at each specific time of the year. As such it doesn’t come on a surprise that even pickling, as a method of food preservation, follows the seasonality. Similar to Europe, summer time and in Japan also the previous rainy season are the busy times for pickling. But there are still things to be done in the pickle pot when temperatures drop at the end of the year.

One of the things to be pickled in wintertime is takuan. In a nutshell takuan is sun-dried daikon that has been pickled several months in nuka. Whereas nuka is rice bran that is the byproduct of milling rice for saké and white table rice. Once again here is an example that nothing goes to waste in the traditional Japanese Cuisine (see also my post on yukari).

Takuan on my lunch tray
Bright yellow Takuan on my lunch tray

I really enjoy eating takuan with its crispiness that locks out any outside sounds for the split second of your biting pleasure. So does my oldest daughter. Unfortunately almost all of the takuan that you can buy in Japan – whether it be from an ordinary supermarket, an upscale depachika like Takashimaya or Mitsukoshi or a pickling specialty shop contains MSG. Therefore I decided that I will give it a(nother) shot and try to make takuan myself.

This is actually my second attempt in making takuan. Sadly my takuan challenge 2014/15 ended abrupt. I kept the pickle pot with the takuan outside on the terrace in front of my kitchen. Same as my girls’ sandpit, so that they are (theoretically) in my range of vision. And if I tell you now that nuka fully layered with pickling brine looks very similar to wet sand you might already guess what had happened. Shortly before the takuan was enjoyable my girls decided to help me and added some ‘nuka’ from the sandpit to the pickle pot, which resulted in a completely molded inedible mass.

This time I started the pickling shortly before Christmas last year and my pickle pot is locked away ever since. Pickling takuan is tricky. Many things can go wrong. Follow me as I will soon write more about the beginning stages and the development of this wonderful tsukémono-dish (umbrella term for pickled things).

Plums not Tulips

It was way too warm in Tokyo the past weeks, it felt more like spring and I must admit that I was tempted to decorate my home with the first tulips in happy anticipation of spring. Already two weeks ago I also saw the first mountain vegetables for sale that usually come to market middle of February.

First Plum blossom of the year in our garden
First Plum blossom of the year in our garden

Very odd. But to straighten the seasons winter has kicked in this week and almost suppressed all the happy spring feelings. Almost, but not quite, as this morning I saw the first fully open plum blossom in my garden. I know that plum trees are supposed to bloom when there is still snow on the branches, but nevertheless for me they are a sign that spring is not very far away anymore.

Celebrating this finding I spontaneously decided to make my girls umé boshi onigigi (hand pressed rice balls with pickled plum) for their lunchbox today.

Yukari onigiri with umé boshi
Yukari Onigiri with umé boshi

I mixed warm rice (thanks to the programming function of my rice cooker) with freshly roasted white sesame seeds and yukari, which are the red shiso leaves that are dried and pulverized after they have been used in the pickling of umé boshi (pickled plums)*. They are utterly delicious and have a subtle sour and salty plum flavor. My girls are addicted to onigiri with yukari and my oldest one even insisted to shape her own onigiri this morning. She lately enjoys to eat the umé boshi as well, even though they can be quite sour, so we added a little bit of it in the center.

Yukari: Dried and pulverized red shiso leaves after pickling umé boshi
Yukari: Dried and pulverized red shiso leaves after pickling umé boshi

Yukari is especially wonderful when packing onigiri in a bento box to enjoy later, as the containing salt preserves the rice from going bad. Not that this would be an issue with todays temperatures, but when the weather gets warmer and picnics become more popular it is a good thing to do.

A word of caution though. Most of the Yukari that is sold in ordinary supermarkets in Japan contains a lot of questionable ingredients, including Monosodium Glutamate or short MSG. If you are a Japan resident or travel to Japan have a look at a store called Tomizawa.

In Japan Tomizawa Shoten sells Yukari without MSG
In Japan Tomizawa Shoten sells Yukari without MSG

Tomizawa sells Yukari without MSG (as well as other types of Furikake – dry rice seasoning). In Tokyo they have shops throughout the city, including Shinjuku Keio, Yurakucho Lumine, Futakotamagawa and Shibuya Seibu. It is a wonderful place to shop for high quality Kambutsu (dried products) and bakery ingredients. Nowadays they label their products bilingual in Japanese and English, so you shouldn’t encounter problems finding what you are looking for. And it enables you to stroll around their store and discover wonderful new products you might have not known before (like e.g. amazingly purple sweet mashed potato flakes – great if you have guests). I usually leave the store with more than what I had planned, but the good news is that we are talking about Kambutsu, which by nature have a very long shelf life, so I know that at some point I will find a good use for whatever I purchase.


* “Nothing goes to waste in the Japanese kitchen”. For me this is one oft the most important mantras in Japanese Cooking. It is simply amazing how resourceful the Japanese are when preparing their food. Starting with the resources they need for cooking to using an ingredient fully, with many ingredients having more than one use. But discussing this goes beyond the scope of this article and I will write about it in more detail in a separate post. Sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t already and you won’t miss it.

Nanakusa no Sekku

Last week was Nanakusa no Sekku, the festival of the seven herbs in Japan, that marks the end of Oshugatsu, the Japanese New Year. On this day – typically in the morning Japanese – people eat Nanakusa Gayu. This is a variation of rice porridge called okayu that is typically served to sick people, because it is soft and rather bland. With my youngest daughter being less than a year old and an addict to Japanese food, I found myself making okayu quite often in the past months and I must admit that it ranks rather low in my Japanese culinary repertoire.

Nevertheless Nanakusa Gayu is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the new year as a simple soup made with rice and water (proportion 1:3), or a light dashi broth and seven different kinds of herbs (each having a unique health promoting property) that are quickly blanched and then finely chopped to be added at the end. The soup is meant to let the “overworked” stomach and digestive system rest and bring longevity and health in the coming year.

Traditional Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs
Traditional Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs

The traditional seven herbs that are added to the dish are:
– seri — Water Dropwort
– nazuna — Shepherd’s Purse
– gogyō — Cudweed
– hakobera — Chickweed
– hotokenoza — Nipplewort
– suzuna — Turnip
– suzushiro — Daikon

Freeze-dried Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs
Freeze-dried Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs

In Japan it is easy to source those herbs both fresh and freeze dried in conveniently packaged containers.

So instead of preparing my family food, which only my youngest daughter would appreciate, I gave it a little twist this year. I combined Nanakusa no Sekku with Sho-Chiku-Bai (pine, bamboo and plum). This threesome – “Three Friends of Winter” is one of the most popular decorative motifs (e.g. the motive on New Year’s chopsticks), representing promise and good fortune.

So I cooked the Japanese rice risotto style: Deglazing the pan with saké and adding the broth little by little while continuously stirring to bring out the creaminess. As a broth I used the liquid from braising bamboo shoots like you would when making Takénoko Gohan. And which were tossed under the rice just before serving. I added pine nuts to the herbs making a raw pesto-like paste to go on top of the rice and added a sprinkle of dried umé boshi powder on top of the dish (hard to see in the picture) to add a splash of color and palate teaser.

Our Sho-Chiku-Bai Nanakusa Gayu
Our Sho-Chiku-Bai Nanakusa Gayu

This variation of Nanakusa no Sekku was a successful experiment. Even my youngest daughter liked the rice. As she is still waiting for her first tooth to come out, there was not much more for her to try. Here is the recipe that I noted while I was cooking:

For the broth :
– 1.100 ml Dashi
–    100 ml Mirin
–    100 ml light colored soy sauce
–    450g     cooked Bamboo
–        2        Turnip
–        2        Mini-Daikon

Put dashi, mirin and soy sauce in a pot on medium heat. Add the thinly cut vegetables, cover with an otoshi buta (or alternatively with a round parchment paper) and allow for low simmering for about five minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Remove the vegetables from the soup and save for their later use.

For the Pesto*:
– 2 packages of Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs
–  70 g freshly roasted  pine nuts
– 100 ml broth
– 15 ml light colored soy sauce
– 1 pinch of salt (optional)

Mix the pine nuts and half of the broth in a blender. Add the rest of the broth bit by bit – depending on your preferred consistency. Proceed similar with the light colored soy sauce, adjusting the degree of saltiness to your liking. Light colored soy sauce is saltier than normal soy sauce, but does not stain the food. So if you substitute regular soy sauce for the light colored soy sauce, beware that it will affect the fresh, green color.

For the rice:
– 275 g    Japanese rice
– 100 ml Saké
– 750 ml broth
– 1 El        light sesame oil
– 1 Prise  Umé boshi powder

Heat the oil in the pot and add the rice, stirring it for one or two minutes until coated with the oil. Deglaze the pot with the saké and add the broth little by little. For a creamy consistency you need to stir constantly, massaging the broth into the rice until it has reached your favorite doneness (mine was al dente).

Before serving mix the cooked vegetables** in the rice and arrange it nicely on a plate. Top with the pesto and sprinkle some umé boshi powder over the dish .

We enjoyed our Sho-Chiku-Bai Nanakusa no Sekku with a glass of chilled Junmai Kimoto Saké from the Daishichi brewery, which I will be introducing in more detail in a separate post.


* The amount of pesto that I got was good for six people, whereas the rice  was for two adults, two little girls and a baby only. Next time I will cut the recipe in half.

** I used way too much bamboo for the dish. The bamboo flavored the broth nicely, but was too much to mix with the rice that I cooked. I assume that 150 g bamboo would probably have been more than enough.

Jubako Plating Plan

Some Jubakos have dividers – either flexible ones or fixed but many come without giving the most plating options. Jubakos are carefully filled, pleasing the eye as much as the food the palate. Not surprisingly those pieces of artistic arranged osechi are carefully planned upfront. Color combinations are in taken into account as much as consistency and shapes. Good practice is to do the design on paper before the filling. Here is the plan my daughter came up with yesterday for arranging osechi in her own Jubako for the next New Years Day:

My daughter's Jubako plating plan for next New Year’s Day.
My daughter’s Jubako plating plan for next New Year’s Day.

In her box she wants to include

– top: Tamagoyaki (rolled omelet)
– second from the top: Kuromamé (sweet, black soy beans)
– third from the top: Cucumbers
bottom: Onigiri (hand pressed rice) with yukari (dried red shiso leaves)

– top: Tori Niku Dango (chicken meatballs)
– second from the top: Tazukuri (candied sardines)
– 3rd and 4th compartment: Some decoration
– second from the bottom: Tataki gobo (pounded Burdock)
– bottom: Cherry tomatoes and
– next to the tomatoes: Edamamé (green soy beans).

Interestingly she has the Washoku color concept already internalized adding all five colors in her box:
– yellow with the tamagoyaki (rolled omelet),
– red with the tomatoes and the yukari
– green with the edamamé and the cucumber
– white with the rice and
– black with the kuromamé .

If you are not yet familiar with Washoku, stay tuned or subscribe to the newsletter. I will be writing about it in more detail shortly.

New Year’s Food in Japan

The turn oft the year is one of the most important holidays for families in Japan – like Christmas in Europe people go home and celebrate the turn of the years with their families. It is the time to reflect on the past year and for a fresh start into the new one. Debts are paid off and arguments are settled before the old year ends. The house gets a good clean and osechi ryori dishes are prepared before the year ends.

Jubako filled with home made osechi after sensei Elizabeth Andoh’s osechi workshop
Two Jubako layers filled with home made osechi after sensei Elizabeth Andoh’s osechi workshop

Osechi ryori (often shortened to ‘osechi’) is a subset of Japanese cuisine. An assortment of traditional dishes – each of which has a symbolic character – are served on Oshogatsu (New Year’s). As historically New Year’s day was not the time for cooking, osechi are made ahead of time, kept and eaten at room temperature. The dishes are therefore typically prepared based on ancient methods of preserving food, like curing with salt or vinegar and simmering in sweetened soy. Some of the traditional dishes are:

Tataki Gobo (pounded Burdock with sesame):
Gobo, or Burdock is a long root vegetable that symbolizes a long and stable life. When splitting the ends of gobo, like you do in this dish, it is believed that the good fortune is multiplied.

Tazukuri (candied sardines):
With the large number of tiny fish Tazukuri symbolizes a bountiful harvest as they were once used as fertilizer. Combining tiny dried sardines with a sweet coating might seem extraordinary, but they are utterly delicious.

Kohaku Namasu (red and white salad):
Typically made from daikon and carrot, this is a recurring color combination in osechi dishes, as red and white stands for happiness and celebration in Japan.

Kurikinton (creamy sweet potatoes with chestnuts):
This is a sweet, bright yellow (golden) dish that is included in the jubako to symbolize wealth and financial success.

Kurumamé (Sweet Black Soy Beans):
Those black soy beans are simmered in thick syrup – and sometimes patiently served as a couple on tiny skewers. It’s thought to have medicinal values and is a symbol of good health.

Hering Roe at my local fish monger a day before New Years.
Herring roe at my local fish monger a day before New Years.


Kazunoko (herring roe):
The roe is being cured in a light soy sauce and dashi and symbolize fertility because of the many tiny eggs.




Kohaku Kamaboko (Red and white Celebration Fish Sausage):
Rarely homemade but store-bought, Kohaku kamaboko, like Kohaku Namasu it is a traditional dish representing happiness and celebration.

Kohaku Kamaboko for sale at my local fish monger
Kohaku Kamaboko for sale at my local fish monger
Kohaku Kamaboko in its typical alternate plating
Kohaku Kamaboko in its typical alternate plating

Daté Maki Tamago (Omlet with Fish):

The golden dish symbolizes a wish for sunny days ahead. For some people it symbolizes knowledge because the rolled shape looks like a scroll. Like Kohaku Kamaboko it is nowadays rarely made at home, as a special omelet pan is necessary that is made of copper and not the everyday Teflon omelet pans.

Plated Daté Maki Tamago
Plated Daté Maki Tamago

On New Year’s day the osechi dishes are then carefully arranged in a two to three layered lacquer box, called jubako. Today ready made osechi boxes can be ordered ahead of time at ordinary supermarkets, depachikas (basement food area in Japanese department stores that carry a wide range of Japanese and international delicatessen) or restaurants. The number of zeros in the catalogue are not a mistake – prices for osechi boxes are usually a couple hundred Euros and can go up to several thousand – depending obviously on the number of persons and the prestige of the chef or producer.

Osechi-ryori boxes in Takashimaya’s 2015 catalogue, an upscale Japanese Department Store
Osechi-ryori boxes in Takashimaya’s 2015 catalogue, an upscale Japanese Department Store