Celebrating the New Year, Japanese Style
For a Japanese-American kid growing up in Hawaii, there wasn’t a more exciting time than the New Year. Our holiday season was far from over after Christmas. New Year’s brought firecrackers and feasting.
On New Year’s Eve, we kids, dressed in our new Christmas bathrobes, were out on our porch all night, blasting firecrackers, ostensibly to chase away evil spirits. We did it for the sheer thrill, reveling in the bang and flash. The Camel brand produced smaller firecrackers for beginners; the Duck brand was twice the size, making a more substantial explosion. Our arsenal, also included cracker bombs, sparklers, roman candles and bottle rockets
We rationed the firecracker packs so we could make a ruckus throughout the night, but ensuring we had set aside enough to string together to make a statement at midnight. As the clock struck 12, a cacophony of firecrackers would erupt, creating a wave of sound, rumbling and rolling down the hillside from the homes above us, our own explosions adding to the din, and a blanket of sulfurous smoke engulfed the neighborhood. The phone rang continuously through the noise, as our aunts, living on the other side of the island, called to wish us a happy New Year. In the morning, our driveway would be littered with shreds of red paper and we would go out looking for unexploded ordinance to replay.
Food is integral to the Japanese New Year, with preparations beginning days ahead. No New Year would be complete without mochi (rice cakes), which are enjoyed in many ways, including grilled and served in soup (ozoni) for the morning of the New Year. My family gathered with friends to cook and steam mochi rice, which was pounded using a heavy wooden mallet until all the grains were pulverized to create a silky-smooth mass that we shaped into patties. Today I use an electric mochi machine to cook and pound the rice. You can see our machine in action here.
For days in advance, my mother would prep for the New Year’s feast and the annual open house, where family, friends and neighbors came to call to enjoy traditional New Year foods like sushi and nishime (a kind of casserole of meat and veggies seasoned in soy-sauce based sauce).
Through the years, I’ve kept the culinary tradition, even when we lived in an apartment in New York City. More recently, I’ve tried to streamline the menus to make life easier and now that my boys are grown, we just divvy up the menu, pass out recipes, and everybody cooks one or two dishes. In our large kitchen, four of us can work at the same time, so we can enjoy each other’s company as we cook together.
Here’s a mochi-like recipe that’s perfect for the New Year, made with rice flour so you don’t have to pound rice to make it. It’s a popular dessert in the Islands and there are many versions of this simple recipe. You will need rice flour and potato starch, both available in Asian supermarkets.
1 box (1 pound) mochiko (rice flour)
2 to 2 ½ cups sugar (depending how sweet you want the result to be)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 can (12 ounces) coconut milk
1 ¾ cups water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Red food coloring
Katakuriko (potato starch) for dusting or cornstarch
(Mochiko and katakuriko are available in Asian supermarkets)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- X 13-inch baking pan. In a large bowl, stir together mochiko, sugar and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together coconut milk, water and vanilla. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing well.
Scoop out half the mixture (slightly under 3 cups). Add 2 to 3 drops food coloring to tint the mixture pink. Pour pink mixture into prepared pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake 20 minutes. Pour remaining mixture over the colored layer. Cover and bake 30 minutes more or until set.
Remove foil and cool completely. Cut into rectangles using a plastic knife or lightly oiled chef’s knife. Roll each piece in potato starch or cornstarch and dust off excess.
Makes about 48 bite-size pieces.
Note: Be sure the Chichi Dango is completely cool (preferably overnight) before cutting or it will not cut cleanly. Chichi Dango should be eaten fresh. Store leftovers in an airtight plastic container or under plastic wrap. After a day or two, it will begin to harden. You can microwave leftovers, a few pieces at a time, to soften.