Makiko Itoh SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES March 3 is Hina Matsuri, also known as Girls’ Festival or Momo no Sekku (Peach Day). This day was a traditional seasonal and religious event on the lunar calendar, during the period when peach blossoms were in bloom — around early April on the Gregorian calendar. (Japan has followed the Gregorian calendar since the late 19th century, so peaches are no longer in bloom during Hina Matsuri, but they are still symbolic of the festival.)

During the latter half of the Edo Period (1603-1868), Momo no Sekku evolved into the festival it is now: a day to celebrate women and to wish for their health and happiness. While it’s not an official national holiday, it’s observed widely in Japan, especially by families that have young daughters.

The centerpiece of Hina Matsuri is the ohina-sama or hina (princess) doll display, depicting the wedding procession of an imperial princess of the Heian Period (794-1185). An ohina-sama set can include just the prince and princess, or swell to include their full entourage. Marriage may not be considered the ultimate road to happiness for a Japanese girl that it used to be, but hina doll sets are still treasured by little girls and their mothers.

Another important item, usually displayed with the hina dolls, is a layered mochi (pounded-rice cake) called hishi-mochi. Related to the kagami-mochi that’s displayed at New Year’s, the bottom green layer signifies spring and new life, the white long life and fertility, and the peach-pink or red is for health and to ward off bad karma. In some regions there’s an additional yellow layer, which refers to the yellow flowers of the nanohana plant, a vegetable related to broccoli that is a major harbinger of spring. The diamond shape of the hishi-mochi is considered lucky too.

Traditional Hina Matsuri dishes adhere to the same green, white, peach-pink and yellow color palette. Their dainty presentation originates from the refined foods of which ladies of the imperial court partook — or, at least, what the wives and daughters of the samurai class in the Edo Period thought they did.

Hina arare is a rice snack treat dyed white, pink, green and yellow. What hina arare means differs according to where you are though: In the Tokyo-Kanto area hina arare refers to a colored and sugared puffed rice, made popular by an old Edo confectionery in the 19th century; but in in the Kyoto-Kansai area, hina arare is a sweet and savory rice-cracker mix.

In recent years, ichigo daifuku — fresh strawberries wrapped in sweet adzuki bean paste and mochi — have gained popularity as a Hina Matsuri treat too, probably because of their festive and “lucky” red and white coloring, the use of sweet-sour, springlike strawberries (which in Japan are in season mainly from late January to March), and their dainty appearance.

Not all Hina Matsuri foods are sugary though. Ushiojiru is a clear, fragrant soup made from hamaguri clams, which are also in season at this time of year. This soup has a wonderful sea-salty taste, which counteracts all the sweetness of the spread perfectly. The shells symbolize a joined pair, signifying the wish for a happy marriage union.

While sushi is eaten year round, it is still considered a spring-appropriate food, so sushi in various forms is often served as part of a Hina Matsuri feast. One typically dish is hamaguri-zushi, small balls of sushi rice wrapped in thin omelet (usuyaki tamago) and made to resemble hamaguri clams.

Pink, yellow and green fat sushi rolls are also popular. However, I recommend a much simpler version — chirashi-zushi, or “scattered” sushi, a bed of sushi rice with various colorful toppings. It’s scalable according to the number of people you’re serving, and the final assembly is very quick. The recipe on this page features the all-important Hina Matsuri color palette of green, white, peach-pink and yellow.

The traditional drink of Hina Matsuri is ama-zake, a sweet, thick, beige beverage somewhat akin to eggnog. It’s usually made from kome koji, the fermented rice used to make sake. Since it’s only fermented for a day, the sugar does not turn into alcohol, so it’s safe for kids to drink — although whether they will like its distinct, old-fashioned taste and texture is another question entirely!

If you have young daughters, Hina Matsuri is a wonderful way for them to experience a time-honored Japanese tradition firsthand. It’s also great to have a day just for them. Even if you don’t have daughters, why not gather some friends to celebrate the women in your life?

You don’t need to have all of the traditional foods listed here, but hina arare and ama-zake can be purchased easily throughout Japan as well as at Japanese grocery stores worldwide. If your kids don’t take to these traditional foods, these days it’s perfectly acceptable to just buy some pretty cakes from the pastry shop to celebrate the day in an appropriately girlie fashion.

It’s important to put up a simple hina doll display to complete the picture. If your budget doesn’t stretch to a hand-carved set, you can go for a plastic model or even download printable hina for free on the Internet. As for the hishi-mochi, if a real one is too expensive, you can easily get a plastic version from a ¥100 shop!

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

Recipe for festive chirashi-zushi

The toppings for this dish can be made several hours in advance, but for the best flavor, time the cooking of the sushi rice so that it’s still slightly warm when serving. A rice cooker is highly recommended.

Serves 4 to 6

For the sushi rice:

Japanese rice — 720 ml (4 rice cooker cups)

Dried konbu seaweed — 10 cm sq. piece

For the sushi vinegar:

Rice vinegar — 90 ml ( 1/2 rice cooker cup)

Sugar — 2 tbsp

Salt — 1 tsp

For the carrot and shiitake topping:

Carrot — 1 small or 1/2 large

Dried shiitake mushrooms — 3-4

Dried konbu seaweed — 3 cm sq. piece

Soy sauce — 1/2 tbsp

Sugar — 1 tbsp

For the vinegared lotus root topping:

Lotus root (renkon or hasu) — 20 cm-long piece

Rice vinegar — 60 ml

Dried konbu seaweed — 3 cm sq. piece

Sugar — 4 tbsp

Salt — pinch

For the boiled shrimp topping:

Raw shrimp — 30 medium

Potato starch (katakuriko) or cornstarch —

1 tbsp

Sake — 1 tbsp

For the shredded omelet (kinshi tamago) topping:

Egg — 1 medium

Salt — pinch

Sugar — pinch

Oil for cooking

For the greens:

Nanohana flowers (use broccoli florets if unavailable) — 1 cup

Salt — pinch

Rice: At least 3 hours before serving, wash the rice in several changes of water. Drain into a fine meshed colander and leave for at least 10 minutes.

Put the rice into the inner bowl of a rice cooker with the konbu seaweed. Add water up to the 4-cup line (about 800 ml), and set the timer so that the rice will finish cooking 1 hour before you plan to serve it.

Sushi vinegar: Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt in a small pan over a low heat, and stir until the sugar and salt are melted. Set aside.

Simmered shiitake mushroom and carrots: Soak the dried mushrooms in enough water to cover until softened. Squeeze out excess moisture, cut off the stems and julienne (cut into short, thin strips) the caps. Peel and finely julienne the carrot. Put both in a pan with the konbu seaweed, sugar and soy sauce and water to cover. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to cool in the cooking liquid.

Vinegared lotus root: Peel and slice the lotus root. Put in a pan with the rice vinegar, sugar, konbu seaweed and salt, and cover with water. Bring to the boil, then simmer untill crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and cool.

Boiled shrimp: Peel and devein the shrimp. Sprinkle with the katakuriko or cornstarch and massage lightly. Put the shrimp and sake in a pan with enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, then drain and let cool.

Shredded omelet: Beat the egg with a pinch each of salt and sugar. Heat up a nonstick frying pan over medium-low heat. Use a wadded-up kitchen towel to coat the surface with a thin film of oil. Heat the frying pan over a medium heat, and add just enough egg mixture to coat the surface. Cook until just set, about 30 seconds. Flip the omelet over carefully to cook the other side for a few seconds. Turn the omelet out onto a plate. Repeat until the egg mixture is used up. Finely shred the cooled omelets.

Greens: Boil the nanohana in salted water until just cooked through and bright green. Drain and let cool.

Serve: Turn out the cooked, hot rice into a wooden sushi handai or large bowl. Pour the sushi vinegar over the hot rice, and fluff up rapidly with a rice paddle so that the vinegar is evenly distributed. Fan the rice with your other hand to cool it down rapidly, or have an assistant do this for you. Continue mixing until the rice has cooled down to body temperature, and is glossy. Drain the carrot-mushrooms and the lotus root, and fold into the rice.

Arrange a bed of rice. Top with the shrimp, shredded omelet and nanohana.

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