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Start a tasty new kitchen tradition this New Year’s

by Makiko Itoh

We’re entering the most traditional time of year in Japan in food terms, starting on New Year’s Eve and through the New Year’s holiday period, when families gather to dine on osechi delicacies and bowls of symbolic soba noodles. That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for other kinds of foods, though. If you’re an expat and want to inject a bit of home into this time of year, here are some ideas for doing that, while still retaining that link to Japanese tradition.

The custom of eating a bowl of warm toshikoshi soba to send out the old year, started sometime in the 18th or 19th century, during the Edo Period. But these days Japanese people are changing things up a bit and enjoying a bowl of ramen or udon instead of soba.

The traditional reasons for eating soba on New Year’s Eve are twofold. First, the noodles are thin and long, signifying a wish for long life. Second, they can be bitten off easily, which may signify a wish to cut off the old and leave it behind as a new year begins.

So if you have another noodle dish instead of soba, choosing a long, thin type may be best in keeping with the original spirit. One Japanese friend who’s married to an Italian says that in their house they have a bowl of soup pasta, a type of pasta dish that’s been gaining in popularity in the past few years, and she makes elongated handmade pasta for it. That sounds like a great East-West fusion idea that reflects the makeup of their family.

For the New Year’s holiday period, many not-so-Japanese dishes go well with osechi and other traditional foods. A very easy dish that’s popular with almost everyone (except for vegetarians) is roast beef. If it’s neutrally flavored with salt and pepper it will go with just about anything. The easiest cut to cook is a filet, which is expensive but is certainly impressive. You don’t need to get a whole filet unless you are feeding a big crowd: If it’s served along with osechi, 50 grams per person is fine.

First trim all sinew and skin from the surface (or have a butcher do it for you), and then season generously with salt and pepper. Sear the surface in a very hot pan, and roast in a 200 degrees Celsius oven for 10 to 15 minutes (for a piece up to 1 kg) until medium rare in the middle, the common preference in Japan. Test for doneness with a meat thermometer, which should register 60 degrees. If you don’t have one, press the meat lightly — it should feel as yielding as your chin. Let it rest completely before slicing thinly. I recommend bringing the whole piece in and carving it solemnly in front of everyone to make the biggest impact.

Any festive food from your home cuisine is likely to be a hit, though — everyone gets a bit tired of osechi after a few meals. A French friends says he always brings some foie gras for his Japanese in-laws. A Canadian friend says she makes a tortière, a traditional pork pie. And a Chinese friend makes gyōza dumplings, which is what they have for New Year’s in her homeland.

Whatever you choose, I hope you’ll have a great New Year’s holiday, and here’s to more tasty adventures in 2014!

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.