April 13, 2010

by Mayo Yoshikawa; Yuka Minato

a samurai legacy

on our New Year’s table

What do you eat on New Year’s Day?

Do you eat any special foods?

In Japan, New Year’s Day is the most important day of year because the new year starts like a kind of rebirth. Japanese eat special foods called osechi and zouni. They prepare these foods at the end of the year for the New Year celebration. Zouni, which is a kind of soup containing melted mochi rice cakes, is the focus of this article.

About 1,000 years ago, special parties were held among the samurai. At those gatherings, they ate zouni first. So zouni became a special party food because if there were no zouni, the party could not start. It is also said that samurai ate this dish to fortify themselves prior to field battles. From these ancient customs, Japanese came to eat this food as a tradition on New Year’s Day. However, this is not true in all parts of Japan: In Hokkaido prefecture (the northernmost island of Japan) and in Okinawa prefecture (the southernmost island group), there were no customs of eating zouni in those early times, because these islands were not yet the territory of Japan. Their people had their own customs, and no samurai lived there. Even now, people living in Okinawa do not eat zouni, while people living in Hokkaido do because about 200 years ago, samurai living on Japan’s main island could acquire Hokkaido prefecture as Japanese territory. And they transmitted a lot of Japanese customs to the inhabitants there, including zouni.

Zouni has long been a traditional food to eat on New Year’s Day. While enjoying it, Japanese have expressed their appreciation for good crops or prosperity of the past year and wished for the same in the year to come, and also prayed for their family’s good health.

Foods tend to vary geographically, and Zouni is different in each area of Japan, especially the western and eastern regions known as Kansai and Kanto or Kinki, respectively. Western Japan prefers white miso soup and round-shaped mochi, while on the other hand, Japan’s eastern region likes soy sauce soup and rectangular mochi.

Main Ingredients

Generally, rice cake, Japanese radish, carrot and taro are used in zouni. Ingredients depend on where zouni is made, so special local products are used.

Japanese people eat rice cakes on celebratory occasions, including some which are very important days that may happen only once in a lifetime:

· Weddings

· Coming of Age Ceremony

· Mochi nage

Mochi nage (throwing mochi) is one of the ceremonies held when Japanese build houses or start a new venture. By throwing mochi, they sanctify their buildings and they pray for their family’s safety or their success in business.

Read more: How to Perform Mochi Nage

In Kyoto

Kyoto is located in Japan’s western region. In this area the zouni is made with white miso. It is a little bit sweet. Rice cakes are round in shape to symbolize becoming a good family. In the old days, people made an offerings to deities of certain foods, and afterwards they would use the items to make zouni. Deities hate fish because it smells fishy. So, people used seaweed broth, using things like dried kelp to make soup for zouni.

In the Eastern Region

To the east, in Kanto, soy sauce soup is used for making zouni. Rice cakes are rectangular in shape and toasted. Rectangles are easier to make than a round shape: First, a big rectangle of mochi is made. And after that, it is cut into smaller rectangles. On the other hand, round mochi are made and shaped one by one.

In the Southeastern part of Kinki

Zouni is similar to Kyoto style. White miso soup is used. And it is also a little bit sweet. Rice cake is round shape. They eat rice cake with sweet soybeans, which represent good crops.

In Kagawa

Zouni is similar to Kyoto style. White miso soup is used. And it is also a little bit sweet. Rice cake is also round shape, but it is special: Sweet bean paste is inside the mochi.

In Fukuoka

Soy sauce soup is used. So the zouni of Fukuoka is similar to the Kanto style. However, yellowtail fish is used.

We hope that when you come to Japan you will try some delicious zouni. Meanwhile, you can find a good zounirecipe that uses chicken at the website Sumo Kitchen and a more traditional recipe here. Enjoy!

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