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 Before it is too out of date, I am posting some pictures of food I had in or from Nagano over the New Year week.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)
posted by chika at: 1/09/2005 03:39:00 AM