By Geraldine Shu
For The North American Post
Oshogatsu (New Year’s) was when our family learned the most about Japanese culture. The week before New Year’s Day, we often helped make mochi at Japanese Baptist Church. We smoothed the lumps of hot, sticky rice into little round cakes with sweet rice flour and polished the tops with the palms of our hands. Sometime before the New Year, we were supposed to clean the whole house (ohsoji), which rarely happened, and pay all of our bills. Sometimes, we spent New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s when we were little, anxiously waiting to bang on her pots and pans to ring in the New Year. No wonder they were so dented and misshapen! My mom said that my grandma would also mop the kitchen floor and lastly, take a bath after everyone went to bed on New Year’s Eve.
A couple of days before New Year’s Day, we made udon (thick wheat noodles) with Grandma from scratch. She prepared the dough with flour, warm water, and a dash of salt. The dough had to be kneaded seven times, five times, then three times, resting in between. Finally, it would get cut into smaller pieces that we would roll into long ropes.
We kept rolling it between our hands or on a board, gently pulling until it was long enough to drape over the back of a chair. Mine never got that long because they always broke. In later years, my mom and aunts bought a pasta machine for Grandma. Some of my younger cousins would help her by cranking the handle of the machine. The fun part was catching the noodles as they were finally cut to size. Grandma then cooked them in boiling water and stored them overnight in covered baskets.
On New Year’s Day, we savored eating the fat, luscious homemade udon, which Grandma warmed in broth made from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass. Noodles signify long life, as do ebi (shrimp). We also had other favorite dishes. My sister and cousin liked kazunoko because it made loud, crunchy noises inside their heads as they ate it. They giggled at the thought that the fish eggs represent fertility. My mom liked kombu-maki (kelp roll), which symbolizes happiness. There were also kuromame (black beans) for health, renkon (lotus root) for purity, carrots and gobo (burdock root) for stability, and takenoko (bamboo shoots) and mochi for strength. I liked the sunomono that Grandma made with cucumber, wakame (seaweed) and squid. I also liked oshiruko, a sweetened azuki-bean soup warmed and served with a softened mochi cake. Grandma or my mom also made makizushi (rolled sushi) and inarizushi (tofu-pouch sushi). We learned to appreciate the flavors and the symbolism of the various foods.
Grandma was from Shikoku, Japan. Her mother died of typhoid when she was only 15. At 17, she came to America as a picture bride. This meant that most of her traditional dishes she actually learned in the States from her friends or from Japanese magazines. So, her Japanese dishes had an American influence to them with the ingredients mostly purchased locally from Uwajimaya and Safeway. The entire time that Grandma was bustling about the kitchen, Grandpa sat in his rocking chair in front of the TV, smoking his pipe. I’m not sure if this was Japanese, American or multi-ethnic.
The first meal of the New Year was always Japanese. It tasted healthy and was somehow cleansing, with favorable attributes represented by the symbolic food. But the backdrop was always American football, often the Rose Bowl on TV. The New Year was made even better if the UW Huskies were playing and won.
Such was our family Japanese-American New Year’s celebration.