After all that talk of winter and being cold, the temperature in Saitama prefecture was over 10°C! Ah well. This is somewhat fitting, however, because
today is yesterday was setsubun (節分) in Japan. This holiday, which usually falls on February 3rd, literally means “seasonal division” and commemorates the beginning of spring. Although it’s still very much winter for most of the country, it’s certainly fun to imagine that warmer temperatures are just around the corner.
Outside Japan, setsubun is perhaps best known as “the bean-throwing festival.” This practice, known as mamemaki, involves throwing roasted soy beans out the front door or at a demon-masked individual while shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out, good fortune in!”) Following this ceremony, one is supposed to consume the number of beans that correspond to one’s age. According to my Japanese coworkers, other activities associated with setsubun include hanging a fresh iwashi (sardine) head from a holly leaf in the doorway (I suppose the smell further frightens the demons) and consuming ehōmaki, an oversized, uncut form of rolled sushi. The ehōmaki are to be consumed silently while facing the year’s auspicious direction. (This year’s direction is south-southeast.
though I must admit I’m not entirely sure why. A good explanation can be found here.)
However, of all the setsubun rituals, what intrigues me the most is the importance placed on beans. These pulses hold a special place in Japanese culture and are often consumed on holidays and other festive occasions. When cooked with rice, red adzuki beans transform that humble grain into celebratory sekihan, while sweetened kuromame (black soy beans) form an integral component of the elaborate New Year’s cuisine known as osechi ryōri. Japanese confections also rely heavily on beans, which are cooked into sweetened pastes and either molded into decorative shapes or used as fillings. Then there are the familiar miso, soy sauce, and natto, all of which rely on the power of fermented beans for their powerful umami punch. And of course it goes without saying that tofu and soy milk would not exist without daizu, the common white soy bean. Yet there are also a plethora of lesser-known beans, many of whose Japanese names elude me. The variety pictured below, kintokimame, are similar to kidney beans but with a meatier, plumper texture and extremely sweet flesh. The beautiful ivory & brown-flecked bean in the next photo, while similar in shape and size to kintokimame, are slightly more firm and dry when cooked. My favorite, however, is a large, black broad bean streaked with vibrant purple splashes (a scarlet runner bean in English, I believe). Though most of their remarkable coloring dissipates during cooking, they are astoundingly sweet and succulent and make a wonderful addition to stews.
While some of these varieties may be unavailable overseas, if you happen to be lucky enough to find some, I encourage you to experiment with them in your kitchen. A good place to start would be nimame (soy beans simmered in dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and kombu), though of course there are slightly less traditional routes. And while you’re at it, why not throw some beans?