Feb. 3 marks the Setsubun festival, or Risshun — the start of spring. And with it come the demons. Luckily there is a food-based ritual dedicated to driving these monsters from your home for another year.
While the start of each of the four seasons is noted on the traditional Japanese calendar, Setsubun is the only one with specific traditions attached to it that are still practised. In the olden days, when people sincerely believed in what is now known as Shintoism, it was thought that the changing of the seasons was a particularly vulnerable time to be attacked by evil spirits, which were represented as angry blue- or red-faced oni, a kind of demon or troll.
On Setsubun, each household loads up a sakemasu, the wooden box in which sake is sometimes served, with roasted daizu, or soybeans. Then the head of the household (or a male in the household whose Chinese zodiac animal matches that particular year) throws handfuls of beans outside of the front entrance while chanting, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” (“Demons outside, good luck inside”).
Sometimes the rest of the household chants along, “Gomottomo, gomottomo” (“That’s right, that’s right”) as he performs this task; some, especially the kids, play the part of oni by donning paper masks and running from the bean-thrower. This ritual is called mamemaki, or the scattering of beans. Afterward, everyone eats the same number of roasted beans as their age for luck.
(In the north and some parts of the south, peanuts are used instead, probably because they are cheaper and more convenient.)
These days, local shrines and their priests perform mamemaki, especially in densely populated urban areas. Perhaps this is for practical reasons: A whole apartment block of people throwing soybeans might be a bit messy. The more likely reason is that the father of any given family is too busy working to be scattering beans, since Setsubun is not an official public holiday.
But why throw roasted soybeans? In Japanese folklore, beans of all types are considered to be symbols of good luck. Stewed kuromame (black beans) are served as part of the New Year’s osechi feast as a symbol of fertility, and osekihan (short-grain mochi rice with adzuki beans that is a bright reddish purple) is a festive dish at many events throughout the year.
But the use of roasted soybeans for mamemaki is a bit more complicated. Raw soybeans are hard and long-lasting and impossible to eat, just as an oni or evil is hard to get rid of. But by roasting the beans with fire, they are conquered and become edible — and imbued with special powers. So the throwing of the beans symbolizes the throwing out of evil spirits, and eating them means the person has conquered and digested those demons. It’s a bit complicated, but I’m sure it made a lot of sense to the people of old.
Mamemaki and soybeans are not the only lucky food associated with Setsubun. One that has become very popular in the last decade is the ehōmaki. Each person takes an uncut fat sushi roll, faces the ehō or lucky direction (this changes annually; this year it’s north-northwest), and eats the whole roll in silence. This is supposed to bring good luck to that person for the rest of the year.
The ehōmaki tradition originated in the Osaka area but has spread around the country, mainly due to some convenience store chains heavily promoting the sushi rolls, filling the marketing lull before the big chocolate rush of Valentine’s Day.
Yet another food associated with setsubun is iwashi (sardines). In some regions of Japan, a whole sardine is skewered through the eyeballs on a holly branch, then grilled and displayed outside the house. Sardines are used because they are “blue” fish containing lots of oil, which when grilled emits smoke — believed to ward off evil. Piercing the eyes with the holly, which is considered a sacred plant, symbolizes the piercing of an oni’s eyes, incapacitating it and making it unable to enter the house.
Occasionally the fish and holly branch are stuck into a knotted rope displayed outside the main entrance. Dried soybean pods are hung with the fish too in some regions. But in some households the bulk of the fish is eaten as part of a Setsubun meal and only the pierced head is hung outside. When my mother was growing up, she and her brothers and sisters would hang the fish heads under the outside porch, since the open underside of their traditional Japanese house was believed to be particularly vulnerable to attacks by evil spirits. Invariably the neighborhood cats would come to make a feast of the fish heads, so they were usually gone by the next day.
If you haven’t eaten whole cooked soybeans before except as green edamame or fermented as natto, Setsubun may be a perfect time to try them. Lucky or not, the soybean is a great protein source, especially for vegetarians — after all, tofu and soy milk are made from the soybean minus the beneficial fiber.
Most of the time you will want to boil soybeans until tender. To do so, rinse and drain the beans, cover in plenty of cold water, and leave to soak for several hours or overnight. Drain off the soaking water, fill the pot with fresh water and bring to the boil, then cook for one to two hours — the cooking time depends on how old the beans are, and their size. The cooking liquid is very flavorful, and can be used as a replacement for dashi stock in stews and soups.
If you don’t want to bother with boiling soybeans, you can buy canned cooked soybeans in any Japanese supermarket.
To roast soybeans takes a bit of patience. You can buy a special bean-roasting device that looks like a small frying pan with a wire mesh on top, or you can use a frying pan instead. Place the beans in a single layer in the pan, and roast them gently while stirring or shaking the pan periodically. The beans will become browned on the outside and crunchy. Use these roasted beans for your mamemaki ritual, making sure to reserve enough for each family member to eat (though older people may want to bend the rules and eat fewer than their age dictates, since roasted soybeans are not that easily digested).
If you have any leftover beans, grind them up to make kinako, to use on mochi or sprinkle onto ice cream. After all, once you’ve gone to the trouble of making your home demon-free, why take any precautions with dessert?
Recipe for Mame Gohan (Rice With Soybeans)
This variation on the festive osekihan (rice with adzuki beans) is not really traditional, but it’s a nice dish to serve on Setsubun or at any time of the year. Soybeans cooked in this manner turn chewy and meaty, making a nice contrast to the rice.
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a Japanese meal
Dried uncooked soybeans — 100 g
Water — 150 ml, plus additional water for cooking the rice
Usukuchi (light) soy sauce — 2 tbsp
Mirin — 1 tbsp
Uncooked white Japanese-style rice — 450 g (3 rice-cooker cups)
Gomashio (black sesame salt) — to taste
Cook the soybeans in water as described in the article above until cooked through yet still firm. Drain, and reserve the cooking liquid for soup.
Rinse the rice in several changes of water. Drain and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
Combine the cooked soybeans, 150 ml of water, the soy sauce and mirin in a pan. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
If using a rice cooker, put the drained rice and soybeans with the cooking liquid in the rice-cooker bowl. Add water to the 3-cup mark, and cook with the regular rice setting.
If using a regular pot or saucepan, put the drained rice and soybeans in the pot and add 600 ml of plain water. Leave to soak for at least 30 minutes if possible. Put on a tight-fitting lid and bring to the boil, then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Leave to steam-cook until small, even steam holes form all over the surface of the rice. Raise the heat again to high for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the saucepan with the lid on for 10 minutes.
Stir up the rice well to distribute the beans evenly throughout. Serve in rice bowls with a little sesame salt sprinkled on top to taste. If the rice is salty enough already, use plain toasted sesame seeds instead.