Having previously waxed poetic about turnips – specifically the petite variety known as Hakurei – it may seem repetitive to sing their praises again. Yet as winter’s darkest days dissipate and spring creeps ever closer, I can think of no better way to celebrate the season than with a feast of these knobby roots. Their mild, crisp bite is enough to appease even the crankiest cold weather haters, while their humble appearance appeals to those of us with an unexplained penchant for the unloved castaways of the vegetable bin.
January 7 has come and gone, but I’m still enjoying leftover nanakusa gayu for breakfast. Mixed with some lightly beaten egg, it’s hearty, filling, and perfect fuel for a blustery bike commute on a winter morning.
In other porridge-y news, Google Japan featured nanakusa gayu in their January 7 “Google Doodle“:
See how the family is gathered around an opening in the floor, with the rice pot suspended from above? This is a representation (albeit a rather abstract one) of a traditional Japanese hearth, or irori. Nice work, Google!
P.S. Congrats to Margaret (aka Megsie) Siple, winner of the Humble Bean Cookbook Giveaway! If you have a chance, please be sure to check out her wonderful blog over at fishpondfever.wordpress.com
I once found the passing of the holidays a rather melancholy event. After all the parties, baking, and gift wrapping, we’re left with empty bottles, stray crumbs, and crumpled paper. As a student, the unpleasant feeling was heightened by the prospect of facing the long march through the Chicago winter. Living in Japan, however, each new year seemed to hold so much promise. In Tokyo, the January sky is bright, blue, and unmarred by the humidity and clouds that settle over the city in other seasons. Returning from the States, the gentle, late afternoon light and long shadows streaking across the rice fields near Narita airport seemed to be as warm a welcome as any weary traveler could ask for. On the train back to Koshigaya, I’d find myself marveling at the fact that this seemingly strange place could feel so much like home, even in the year’s darkest days.
Nagano prefecture is known throughout Japan for its buckwheat, which finds its way into much of the region’s cuisine, from the famed Shinshū soba (more on which here, here, and here) to soba manju (sweet red bean paste wrapped in a thin buckwheat skin) and soba cha, a mellow, caffeine-free tea made from buckwheat kernels. The buckwheat harvest, which takes place in the late fall after October’s rice harvest, is hard and laborious work. Preparing the buckwheat for cooking is no easier: after harvesting, the buckwheat grains are threshed and sorted. Traditionally, stone mills are used to grind the grains into flour. Freshly milled buckwheat flour has the most delicate flavor, and so soba made immediately after the fall harvest is held in high regard.
Every new year, we promise ourselves new lives, new looks, new selves. Yet by the end of the first week of January, how many of us still feel that motivation, that tug toward self-improvement? Think for a moment now: what if every day were lived with that sort of mindfulness and deliberation, of keeping our promises to others and ourselves? What would that feel like, and who would we become? We might not necessarily become better, or wiser, or more beautiful, but perhaps we would live with a greater appreciation for incremental change, the gradual completion of a project, the assiduous chiseling of an idea, the slow and uncertain progress that underlies day-to-day existence.
Every year, I dread the onset of winter’s brief days and deep, dark nights. Yet every year I remember that this season brings its own small pleasures: snowball fights; friendships strengthened over hot tea and homemade bread; standing in silence among sun-dappled snowy pines, drinking in the cold, fresh air. Winter gives us time to be alone with our thoughts, to make good on our promises, to seek out small adventures in the seemingly endless days until spring.
In a recent fit of restlessness, solitude beckoned in the form of a trans-alpine journey. One bitterly cold morning in January, I awoke in the dark, dressed in my warmest layers, gulped some green tea, and hopped on a bus toward the mountains. The only things weighing me down were a small backpack and a camera. My destination: Shirakawa-go (白川郷), whose name literally means “white river village.”
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.)
It took some time, but winter’s chill has definitely settled over Japan. A few weeks ago, temperatures on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido dipped to -25°C, and the western part of the country, where winters are usually temperate, received some unexpected snowfall. However, winter in the Tokyo area has been relatively mild, with daytime temperatures hovering around 5 – 10°C and little precipitation. No doubt those of you in the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. will scoff at these temperatures, given the recent slew of blizzards those regions have been subjected to.
Here’s the catch though: most houses in Japan do not have central heating are poorly insulated (if at all). Traditionally, Japanese houses were equipped with a central hearth, or irori, which was used for both cooking and heating. However, unlike the wood and coal stoves that heated American homes of yore, Japanese hearths lacked a chimney, which resulted in very sooty rafters and walls. Thankfully, times have changed, although warding off the cold indoors remains an issue.