January 9, 2005

o-sho-gatsu in the mountains

I stayed in Nagano for a week or so to spend the New Year (o-sho-gatsu) holidays with my family, and just got back to my sister's in Tokyo (well, more precisely just out side of it across a river) a few days ago. I haven't been blogging as much as I was wishing to, partly because I was being lazy (that's the way to spend New Year holidays anyways) and partly because I got a bad cold, and more and more because I am being swamped with work which is because I was being a procrastinator. Before it is too out of date, I am posting some pictures of food I had in or from Nagano over the New Year week.

Traditionally, Japanese families would have a set of special New Year' dishes called osechi which is typically arranged in a set of fancy multitiered boxes. Nowadays many people just buy a whole set or part of it from stores or even from restaurants, while there are still some good people who prepare them all by themselves, like this (in Japanese, but you can see the beautifully-presented authentic home-made osechi). And there are quite few people who just skip osechi altogether or just have a few dishes, like my own family. So here don't expect to see anything like traditional Japanese New Year's dishes at all... what I am putting here is simply what I had over the New Year time.

That said, I have to add that we do have a must-have New Year dish: zoni, or soup with rice cake. While it is such a popular New Year dish throughout the nation, its main ingredients (other than rice cake for its own sake) surprisingly vary from one region to another, or from one family to another. Ours is pretty simple: just a few ingredients (typically chicken, carrot, green onion, and mitsuba herb) in a light fish broth.

We usually have this for the New Year's day breakfast "dinner". So did we this year...

... only we didn't have anything else as we were in hurry to get ready to leave for Nagano before noon. Trying to give a celebratory feeling to the one and only dish we had for the supposedly most important breakfast of the year, we garnished it with salmon roes (they're quite a luxury over here).

Then we hurried our way to Nagano, and got there before dark. My mom was busy preparing dinner, but we sat down for a while to have a cup of tea/coffee over a slice of cake I had bought in Tokyo.

Cake roll with mascarpone cheese cream and bruleed custard cream

We wouldn't make a whole set of traditional osechi, but there are a couple of staples that my mom would always make. This is one of them.

Slow-cooked chicken and vegetable pot. A lot of root vegetables along with chicken are gently cooked in a stock. Mom would make a huge potful and as a kid I used to avoid it, but it is now what I miss most when I am not spending a New Year with her.

Sweetened beans. There are a variety of beans we have for this dish, and this time she used a large kind called hana-mame. This is my sister's favorite and she gobbled them down before anyone else could take their time to taste them.

For dessert, we had a large cake that one of my cousins who was with us had brought.

In fact, it was a cake that he made. As a former patissier in profession, he knows how to make a gorgeous entre: chocolate mousse with chopped orange peel on a chocolate sponge, covered with ganache.

Apparently, the person who cut up the cake (myself, that is) didn't know how to do it properly, but it tasted super good nevertheless.

On the following day, we had a small birthday party and did seafood barbecue on the fireplace fire.

We had scallops and prowns along with a LOT of vegetable and mushrooms.

After dinner mom whipped up a quick dessert that she had been talking about from before:

Coffee-poarched apples. Apples and coffees, not tea, have you ever had them together? I hadn't. She had insisted it be good, and I was a half suspicious and half curious... and it turned out pretty good. Apples alone tasted fairly bitter, but together with vanilla ice cream it was yummy. Very unusual though.

That night we had a crab for barbecue but it turned out not to have much meat, so we passed that to the following morning's breakfast miss soup.


Oh I lost track of what I ate on what day... but this was for one of those days.

We have winter specialty dish called nabe, which literary means "pot". Much like zoni, nabe can take any form with potentially endless combination of ingredients special to a specific region or family, and main thing is that they are cooked in a large pot (often earthen pot). This time around mom put chicken, chinese cabbage, green onions, grilled and deep-fried tofu, and enoki mushrooms,
and served it with a whole lot of grated daikon radish along with soy sauce and yuzu juice. Sizzling on the table, a nabe can be the best feast you can have on a cold winter day.

And later I caught a terrible cold and stayed in bed for a while, living on apples.

Nagano is one of the largest producers of apples in Japan, and although I am not from the area myself, I grew up on their excellent apples sent from my relatives there. I am very spoiled and picky when it comes to apples, and had trouble eating spongy and grainy apples sold at a store in Hawaii. These are the apples that I like.

After a while when I was better, I started eating other stuff than apples, and on one day my mom made tempura for lunch.

I have made it very clear that I hate deep-frying. But eating deep-fried dish (that someone else has prepared) is another story: I love it. This day we got shiso, carrots, and enoki tempura served with a light sauce. Nothing is quite like eating sizzling-fresh tempura.

Towards the end of our stay mom made curry. Although Thai and other asian curries are now very popular over here, back in the day "curry" meant those spicy dark brown sauce in a sort of Indian style, and that would be what people make at home. This "curry rice" (curry with rice) has become one of the classic home-made dishes in Japan, and kids, grown-ups and alike all love it (well, most of them).

It is also a dich that he likes a lot. In fact, it might be his most favorite Japanese dish along with chicken karaage. My mom remembered it (probably because he loved it so much last time he was here), and didn't forget to cook a large potful for us.

It was very simple just with beef, onions, potatoes, and carrots, but the slow cooking made everything really tender and disappear into the sauce, which made it realy rich and flavorful. Naturally, it wasn't only him who had seconds.

In the morning of the day we were set to leave Nagano, I baked small loaves of cake in my mom's small kitchen. I chose simple pound cake-like loaves with yuzu and apple, both a harvest of the season. I first microwaved a diced apple with a dash of yuzu juice, and put them in the batter together with grated zest and juice of one and half yuzus.

It was my first attempt to pair the two fruits in cake, but it turned out lovely. The cake itself might have been a bit too dry, but it got better on the following day. Simple but nice little ones.

Oh I ate a whole lot while I was there, and on top of that I got a lot of sweets and snacks as a souvenir for friends and myself. Recently, a number of mass confectioners make "limited versions" of nationwide products specially for a specific area. If you are not familiar with such Japanese sweet products you might not see what I am talking about, but you will probably know this one at least:
(Mouse over to open the package)

Apple KitKat. KitKat's got a lot of limited-time-only varieties with different flavors over here (in the past there have been banana, berries, pineapple, etc), and this is Nagano area only version. It did have a flavor of apple, and I liked it.

These are called Baby Star, deep-fried noodle snack flavored to resemble real noodle dish like ramen.
(Mouse over to open the package)

Nagano specials are those of soba (buckwheat) noodle with wasabi and chili pepper mix. Personally I like wasabi one a lot, but he said it was too much of wasabi.

Like I said, Nagano is known for apples, and lot of products use or feature apple. This is another such variation in candy-coated chocolate.

Chocolate inside is apple-flavored. Is it? I suppose so.

And here is my latest favorite sweet I never miss whenever I am here; walnut meringue cookies. Nagano is also known for good walnuts, and there are equally lots of sweets using walnuts.
(Mouse over to open the package)

This isn't a mass-produced product like the above three, but from a local confectionery called Hanaoka. It is a very light baked meringue with walnut bits, and once I have opened a bag it is really hard to stop before emptying it at once. I don't care for baked meringue in general, but this is a special exception.

It's a nice and quiet, beautiful little mountain village where my mom lives. I wish I could have stayed there longer, and wish I could visit my mom more often.

And now, back to work. (sigh)


Anonymous said...

Hi, it's Mariko/supereggplant. I am so hungry now after reading your post! All that food looks so delicious. Great photos. A friend sent me the limited edition matcha Kit Kat, and it was really good! Glad you had a nice trip. Happy New Year!

Cathy said...

Hi Chika - so much delicious looking food! The tempura is beautiful - at first I thought this was a picture of the vegetables before frying. I always thought tempura involved a batter of some sort, it appears these have none - are the vegetables just fried in oil with no embelishment? They look so great - I'll bet they taste great too!

fish fish said...

I tried the Shinshu Apple version too. It was not bad... but still think the Uji Maccha version better. :P

Reid said...

Hi Chika,

Sorry to hear that you've been feeling under the weather too. Here's to wishing you a speedy recovery.

For New Years, since my grandmother is half-Okinawan, we normally have sparerib soup, nishime and konbu maki. Since I was sick, I made some nishime for myself. It was OK, but not as good as my grandmother's. =(

marezone said...

Apple KitKat?! Very tempting.

obachan said...

I didn’t know there was such a thing as Shinshu Apple KitKat. Hmmmm, another thing that’s following the path of Kitty-chan, pretz and pocky…
Seafood barbeque on the fireplace fire in winter!! Absolutely my dream life *--- sigh ---*

Anonymous said...

Hi Chika :),

it´s always interesting to get to know more about the specialities in other countries and also about the varieties of food... In Germany you can only buy KitKat in the chocolate type...

There you can see how poor the ability to be open to new tastes is in Germany.... In (nearly) all asian food restaurants here in Germany you get only "westerned" dishes.... Here in Hanover I only know ONE sushi restaurant that serves real good sushi... I think that´s very very poor.... :((((

By the way: Your photos are great! Whta kind of camera are you using???

Greetings Anke :))

Anthony said...

What a great post. I think there's a whole month of food blogging crammed in there. The only thing that's missing are those 2 litre bottles of Nikka Whiskey and Shochu everyone seemed to buy. I've got a soft spot for kare raisu as it is the number one Japanese roadhouse food. The kit kat story made me smile, I remeber telling me that Pocky enthusiasts would travel to Nagano to get unusual flavours they couldn't get in Tokyo.

Anonymous said...

happened to pop by via the 1000recipes link... my! i am drooling over your delectable pictures!

Zarah Maria said...

Your pictures are to die for Chika! Thanks for making my day a lot prettier!

chika said...

Hi there,

Mariko - Thanks! I like the match KitKat too, and there are a whole lot of matcha-flavored chocolates out there I can't even keep up ;P

Happy happy New Year to you, too!

Cathy - If some thing is called tempura, it had definitely got to be battered, like you suspected. And these tempura of my mom's were battered, too, though it might be hard to spot it. I like tempuras with a thin coating of batter like these, instead of thick, fat, and thus oily ones...

fish fish - o that's because you're in Kyoto! ;)
But seriously I like matcha KitKat, too. I also like Kyoto-only matcha "collons" as well.

Reid - Thanks for your kind comments, I think I am well now.

I don't think I have ever had spareib soup... is it Okinawan dish? Sounds good. I like nishime too, but mine would never beat my mom's, really.

marezone - year it was good (I've still got some)!

obachan - I wonder what they made over there in Kochi. Tosa-joyu KitKat? (just kidding, I'd rather have yuzu KitKat if they ever make such a thing)

Anke - O I'm jealous of you, I miss good German bread, cold meat, cheese, and wines... you guys got such a rich food culture of your own, too! I think Japanese people are fond of introducing foreign food into our culture and sort of putting together, while some part of us are very conservative and do adhere to "pure" traditionals.

I have been using a Nikon CoolPix 2500 for two years now, but it is basically broken and I have to buy a new one.

Anthony - thanks, I think this actually was a week full of blogging :P O it was toooooooo bad we were missing Nikka Whiskey and Shochus, but there was a bunch of sake and beers.

Kare raisu and ramen, they are what you get everywhere you go :I

someone - thanks a lot!

Zarah Maria - thank you, too!

Anonymous said...

Apple kitkat?? I collect kitkat flavours and wrappers, would anyone be willing to sell me some? via ebay or oherwise?  

Posted by SAM

Anonymous said...

Okinawan spare rib soup - SOKI SOBA. YUM! With some shichimi togarashi. even better... 

Posted by kijimuna

Anonymous said...

Hi kijimuna-san,

Okinawan spare rib soup is like soki-soba minus soba (noodle)? I think I'd like that... 

Posted by chika

Anonymous said...

i was in nagano for new year's, it was so amazing! had a traditional nagano new year's eve dinner, and a tokyo new year's day. of course we had the best soba at new year's. it was great. my first trip to japan and a memorable one. and yes, i can never look at another apple again!  

Posted by nick