I first tasted ozōni, a comforting mélange of vegetables and broth topped with toasted rice cakes, in Hakodate, a charming port city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaidō famous for its squid and Western-style architecture. It was New Year’s morning, and I had arrived in Japan just a few days earlier. The previous evening had been a blur of rapid-fire Japanese, new and exciting foods (candy-sweet black beans! Bright yellow chestnuts and sweet potatoes! Raw quail eggs with soba noodles!) and unfamiliar etiquette. Of course, my confusion was compounded by jetlag and culture shock, not to mention a few sips too many of sake and umeshu. The next morning, after my attempts to watch the sun rise over Goryōkaku park were stymied by a blizzard, I felt a powerful craving for a hot, warm breakfast.
To my relief, the modest business hotel where I was staying offered a surprisingly lavish spread of Japanese breakfast staples: onigiri, miso soup, grilled fish, mayonnaise-laden salads, and countless pickles. Just as my travel companions and I were starting in on our second round, we were presented with piping hot bowls of ozōni, which is traditionally eaten on New Year’s morning. Impeccably fresh, briny scallops bobbed in a clear dashi-based soup, which was accented with a strip of yuzu peel, segments of carrot and daikon, and a few bright green leaves of mustardy komatsuna. But the real star was the grilled mochi, which soaked up the savory broth, becoming delightfully chewy and sticky. Texturally, it was a startling experience: biting into the crisp, smoky crust, only to encounter an impossibly gluey mass that resisted the efforts of chopsticks and teeth alike.* This was fun food, I thought – fun to look at, fun to eat, and, as it turns out, fun to make, too.
Numerous regional styles of ozōni exist – in the Western Kansai region, miso is added to the soup and round mochi are often used, while a clear broth accented with square blocks of mochi is more common in Kantō, near Tōkyō. Chicken broth and thighs are common additions everywhere, although in coastal areas one may find seafood in lieu of meat. The only constant in ozōni is the mochi – without it, it would just be soup (albeit a very tasty one). The recipe below – let’s call it “Brooklyn style” – is perfect anytime, whether one is ringing in the New Year or simply a new week.
*Some mochi packages come printed with warnings advising eaters to chew slowly and thoroughly before swallowing. Despite this, every year New Year’s morning in Japan brings reports of those who perish by choking on the seemingly innocuous rice cakes.
Ozōni – お雑煮
Simmered vegetable and rice cake soup
Adapted from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
For the purposes of this recipe, broiling the mochi in a toaster oven achieves similar results to grilling with less fuss. Mochi are available at Japanese and Asian markets – look for もち on the package.
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds
(1) 2-inch piece daikon, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cut 1/4-inch thick*
1 bunch komatsuna or spinach, well washed
About 15 medium shrimp, peeled (tails left on) and deveined
3 or 4 mochi rice cakes (one per person)
3 cups dashi, preferably homemade
1 teaspoon usukuchi shōyu (light-colored Japanese soy sauce) or regular soy sauces, plus more to taste
Fine sea salt, to taste
(3 or 4) 2 x 1/4-inch strips of yuzu, Meyer lemon, or regular lemon peel (one piece per person)
Simmer the carrot and daikon in separate pots of salted water until just tender, about 10 minutes for each vegetable. As soon as they are cooked, shock in ice water and drain.
Blanch the komatsuna or spinach in lightly salted water until it turns bright green. Immediately shock in ice water, squeeze well, and cut stems and leaves into neat bundles 2 inches in length.
Rinse the shrimp and bring a small pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook the shrimp until they just turn pink and firm. Remove from heat and drain immediately.
Heat the dashi to just shy of boiling and turn the heat to low. Add the usukuchi shōyu and season to taste with the salt (and more shōyu, if desired). Keep warm.
Meanwhile, carefully toast the mochi in a toaster oven (or broil in an oven). When the mochi are mottled brown on one side, turn and toast the other side. Keep a close eye on them as they cook, as they tend to burn quickly.
Place the carrots, daikon, komatsuna or spinach, and shrimp in 3 or 4 deep bowls. Ladle the warm dashi over the ingredients and garnish each bowl with a piece of toasted mochi and yuzu peel.
*Alternately, you can use a knife to shave six equal pieces off the daikon to produce decorative hexagonal shapes.