Thursday 25 January 2024

Japanese New Year Foods and TV Gourmets

Happy New Year! New Year in Japan is very much like Christmas in the UK, a time for family, resting at home, and eating too much! I love the colourful decorations people put on their doors: known as shime-kazari (しめ飾り), these wreathe like adornments feature some combination of pine, fern, tangerine (mikan), and berries decorated with rice straw rope. Also of note are the decorations placed either side of a door or gate, often simply pine branches with Shinto inspired white jagged zigzag-shaped strips of paper (shide) but sometimes a more elaborate pair of kadomatsu (門松), huge pieces of diaganolly sliced bamboo, decorated with pine and sometimes plum (ume). Pine and bamboo are both said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness. 

Like Christmas in the UK, eating is a central feature of New Year in Japan. The food traditionally eaten over the first three days of the year is called osechi and consists of family favourites such as sweet black beans (kuromame), mochi (rice cake), and mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts (kurikinton). These were typically foods that would keep well, since tradition had it that using a fire over this period was bad luck. Nowadays, however, osechi is spread over three days more as a way to reduce cooking and give everyone a break. Moreover, on top of the traditional staples, expensive and colourful seafood delicacies seem to have proliferated in recent years: crab, giant shrimp, sashimi, herring roe (kazunoko), lobster, grilled sea bream (tai), and fish paste slices (kamoboko). As the snap shows, our New Year's dinner was not particularly traditional, but did contain most of the things I like!

© Fusōsha Bunko (preview)

If more proof was needed of how important food is to Japanese at New Year, this year's holiday featured a non-stop morning to evening broadcast on TV Tokyo of the manga inspired series "Solitary Gourmet" (孤独のグルメ), a nine season classic about a traveling salesman dropping in at various restaurants around the country. There really is no plot as such, just the main character doing a little work and then suddenly declaring, "I'm hungry" (hara hetta=腹減った) before going off to search for a suitable restaurant. We then hear his inner voice pondering over what to order before finally describing in exquisite detail the food that comes out. The TV Tokyo website has an amazing collection of mouth-watering food photos while wikipedia lists all the dishes he has sampled over all nine seasons -  plus the specials!

© TV Tokyo/Yoshinaga Fumi/Koensha (original link here)

Whereas British TV is full of cooking programmes featuring celebrity chefs, while these exist in Japan (Iron Chef, a cook-off type program featuring guest chefs, is probably the most famous), Japanese TV is instead full of programmes featuring celebrities just eating and describing dishes in various restaurants. There are also hybrid cooking/eating shows, probably the most popular being the fictional drama What Did You Eat Yesterday? (きのう何食べた) which unsurprisingly aired a New Year special. Originally a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga, the show centres on the relationship between a middle-aged gay couple living in Tokyo. The show typically features Shiro, a gourmand, cooking a dish as he explains the key points step-by-step and finishes with the two enjoying the meal together. Actual recipes can be downloaded from the website - check out one example here - reflecting the fact that the original manga also contained the recipe for the featured dish. Now in season 2, it has proved so popular you can even buy a set allowing you to recreate Shiro's recipes in your own home (ad pictured).

As a final aside, it is interesting to note that the restaurants featured in the "Solitary Gourmet" are all real restaurants. I recently tracked one of those down, a Burmese restaurant called Nong Inlay in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, which offers food eaten by the Shan ethnic group of Myanmar. Interestingly, this area of Tokyo is often called Little Yangon due to its 2,000 or so Burmese residents and the many Burmese restaurants and shops operating in the area. For those interested in more on Burmese - and other foreign migrants - living in Japan, I recommend checking out the films by the Japanese director Akio Fujimoto, who is married to a Burmese, especially the 2018 "Passage of Life" about a family from Mynamar living in Japan (trailer here) and the more recent "Along the Sea" about three Vietnamese migrant workers (trailer here). Both are based on true stories that highlight how Japanese people tend to turn a blind eye to the many non-Japanese living in their midst. If you have a COMMENT - or are just feeling hungry - do please drop me a line!

No comments: