Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Traditional Japanese New Year's cuisine 1: Osechi tokusen

I've often wondered how I might combine my passion for cooking with my day job as a Japanese to English translator. Mostly I cook Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean food, so unless there is an absolutely brilliant book on the food of these areas written in Japanese that needs translating into English, it's hard to see how I might bring the two together.

It is therefore a special treat to be able to bring you a couple of Japanese recipes today. They are for traditional dishes cooked over several days, arranged artfully in a three-tiered lacquer box, and eaten over the first couple of days of the New Year.

As it turned out, we were invited to our dear friends M an T's New Year celebration at the last minute, and the cooking I had planned to do ahead of time all had to be done on New Year's Day (after arriving home from alcohol-free but extremely lively merry-making at 5 am). Do not attempt this at home!

There is a good reason I don't cook more Japanese food, and that is that it cannot be whipped up in half an hour after work! This goes doubly for celebratory dishes such as these, although the soup (recipe soon) can be on the table pretty quickly if you have bought in all the bits and bobs you need in advance (though this is essential to any cooking, really).

Kuromame (sweet black soy beans)

These are made with the hope that the eater will work hard and live a healthy life (both of which are mame in Japanese, the same as the word for beans) in the year ahead. This may be the only recipe you come across that calls for rusty nails (no, not the ones made of whisky and Drambuie; actual rusty nails, which are said to improve the beans' colour). Unfortunately we were clean out of rusty nails, but I can happily report the recipe works just as well without them (g). Also note that you will cook the beans in the soaking water so do measure it and don't throw it away!


1 cup kuromame (black soy beans)
3 cups water
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1-1 1/2 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
2-3 rusty nails, wrapped in muslin or similar to ease removal

1 Soak beans overnight in water and salt.

2 Tip into heavy bottomed pot and add rusty nails, wrapped in muslin or similar and bring to the boil. Leave the nails in until the beans are tender.

3 Meanwhile, remove any scum that comes to the surface and add an additional cup of water. Place a greaseproof paper "lid" over the top (to reduce evaporation) and simmer gently, covered, for 4 hours or until soft. Add half the sugar and continue to simmer.

4 After 15 minutes, add remaining sugar and soy sauce. Leave on a low heat until the sugar dissolves, then remove from the heat and allow to cool. Remove beans with a slotted spoon and reduce the remaining syrup a little. Pour over the beans and leave overnight to allow the flavour to penetrate.

Tazukuri (dried fish simmered in soy sauce)

Once upon a time, these fish were apparently used in a rice paddy as fertilizer, resulting in a bumper crop, hence the name "tazukuri", or paddy-making.

I felt these were too salty, but they went down well with guests a day or two later as an accompaniment to Japanese sake. Mine did not stick together, but that just made them easier to graze on in the following days.


30 g gomame (dried young anchovies)
30 g flaked almonds or sesame seeds (lightly toasted in a dry frying pan)
30 ml Japanese soy sauce
30 ml sake
15 ml mirin
Pinch of sugar

1 Pick over gomame, removing the guts for better flavour and spread out on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave for 1 minute on high and remove to a sheet of paper towel.

2 Break up almonds with your hands.

3 Heat soy sauce, sake, mirin and sugar in a small pan over a low heat. When reduced to the point where the bottom of the pan becomes visible, quickly add gomame and mix to coat. This helps them stick together.

4 Sprinkle over almonds. Make small piles of fish with all the heads pointing the same way and place on a sheet of greaseproof paper while still warm. Allow to cool.

Kurikinton (sweet potatoes with chestnuts)

"Kuri" is chestnut and "kinton" refers to wealth. This sweet and moreish paste of gold is made in the hope of calling wealth to the eater in the year to come (we can only hope, eh?). If done by hand as per the recipe, this takes an age. Perhaps the passing the mix through a sieve can be done in a food processor instead?? Either way, I used half the original amount of sugar and it was plenty sweet enough.


500 g sweet potatoes
1--2 kuchinashi (gardenia) pods (Japanese saffron!!)
1 1/4 cups sugar (I used half)
1/2 cup syrup from bottle of chestnuts in syrup (you might need to be in Japan at this time of year for this one)
1/5 tsp salt (a pinch, I reckon)
3 tbsp mirin
10-15 of the bottled chestnuts (I halved them)

1 Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into 5 mm rounds

2 Soak sweet potatoes in a bowl of water as you cut them (to prevent discolouring). Change water a few times until it runs clear.

3 Bring sweet potatoes to the boil. Add water to reduce the temperature of the water, then drain. (Seriously, this is what the recipe says!)

4 Add fresh water to just cover. Add kuchinashi pods, broken in half and wrapped in muslin or similar to ease removal. Place a greaseproof paper "lid" on top (I reused the one from the beans) and simmer, covered, until very soft.

5 When soft, drain the cooking liquid and remove the kuchinashi pods. Shake the pot gently over the heat to dry and flake the sweet potatoes. Add half the sugar (I only added this much) and mix with wooden spoon, mashing as you go.

6 Wet sieve and shake excess water off. Pass sweet potato mixture through with a wooden spoon, using strong strokes in one direction.

7 Return sweet potatoes to the pot and add remaining sugar (if using), syrup, salt and mirin. Mix over a gentle heat.

8 When the mixture starts to thicken and become glossy, add chestnuts and heat gently a little longer, then remove from the heat. It will continue to thicken as it cools, so remove from the heat while still a little "wet". (It should basically end up like very smooth mashed potatoes.)

With best wishes for 2008. Enjoy!

No comments: