Monday, December 31, 2007

A Note on O-shide

When opposing weather fronts meet - warm and wet, cool and dry - the heavens thunder and crackle with raw electrical force. At shrines throughout Japan shide (紙垂), folded paper streamers hanging from shimenawa (注連縄), the braided rope that surrounds sacred trees, torii gates, and other objects of veneration  appear to the distant observer as stylized lighting bolts.

O-shide mark the boundary between the spirit world and the floating world.  Just like the signs on fences and gates of electrical works - beware of crossing from this world to the other.

Kodama (木霊) sprits inhabit certain sacred trees at Shinto shrines. You will know which ones by the presence of the o-shide hanging from the thick rope wrapped around them. To harm the tree is to harm the kodama, which will surely bring bad luck.

O-shide are not, however, limited to trees and Shinto shrines.  They are also used to decorate anything considered sacred.  You can see them at Kabuki theaters, on matsuri mikoshi, decorating the belts of sumo wrestlers.  

I watched them being tousled in the wind on a blustery day on the last day of the year.  They were hanging around a huge old pine housing an ancient kodama.  I kept a safe distance while admiring the tree.


Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, y'all

Today we combined two great New Year’s Day culinary traditions: Japanese osechi ryori and down-home Hoppin’ John. We didn’t do the full-on osechi menu of 12 or so dishes and we didn’t prepare any of it ourselves: few people do anymore. Instead, we bought a few of our favorite New Year’s sweets from the local supermarket: datemaki (伊達巻), kuromame (黒豆), and kurikinton (栗金団). Datemaki is a rolled spongy omelet made with fish. Our datemaki was made with tai (鯛) or sea bream, an especially lucky fish since its name sort of mimics omedetai, which is a wish for good fortune. Similarly, the word mame sounds like health – or diligence, according to one friend – so consuming black beans is assurance of both for the coming year. Kurikinton, or chestnuts stewed in sweet potato sauce, look like gold coins, promising wealth.

Friends tell us about the vanishing tradition of osechi home cooking. The women of the house cook up a storm for the week or so prior to New Year’s Day, preparing enough food to carry them over the first three days of the new year. These are days of rest for the family cooks, but the tradition itself likely began in the imperial court in Kyoto, where it was forbidden to light the hearth for those three days.

We didn’t put the dime in the Hoppin’ John as tradition dictates, but did manage to find a credible slab of bacon to substitute for the hamhock. The symbolism: Rice for riches and peas for peace. We wish you both in the new year.


One Year Ago Today...

As we prepare to head out to celebrate New Year's Eve, I got to thinking about last year's celebration and the making of mochi. It was a bit after midnight. No sooner had the bell finished its 108th toll, releasing the several hundred thousand people assembled from the burden of the 108 possible sins, than another sound emerged from behind the belfry at Zojoji shrine in Shiba Koen. This was the sound of mochi being pounded and everyone got to take a whack.

As with many foods that are fun to create, the making of mochi combines simple ingredients, exotic tools, and an element of danger. First, rice is steamed to a virtual mush then loaded into a large wooden bucket. Next, up to three people at a time take turns beating the rice down with large wooden mallets. An intrepid mochi flipper sticks his hand in there from time to time to move the thickening mochi around and make sure it is pounded evenly. Care must be taken not to hit the sides of the bucket in order to avoid leaving splinters. On this occasion, the nearly completed mochi was transferred to a smooth stone bowl and pounded some more to finish it off. Everyone was invited to sample a bit when it was done.

This year we will be going to Ana Hachimangu for New Year's, then to Kumano Jinja on January 14th for their mochi ceremony. Their signature flavor is kinako, sweet mochi dusted with a special soybean flour.


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Food Like Grandma Used to Sew

There’s a little café down by the fishin’ hole in Wadabori Park. On sunny days when the catch-and-release crowd is out in force it is filled with people downing plates of yaki soba, onigiri, and other food that’s good for washing down a beer with. The odds that I will ever eat there were increased when I happened across the food display, outside next to the 8-foot-tall talking humanoid popcorn machine. Instead of the usual plastic images of what’s on offer, the food in this display is made of felt and yarn, a handmade labor of love. It’s not quite as mouth-watering as your well-made plate of plastic dumplings, but it seems far more sincere. However, the idea of putting woolen soba noodles in my mouth is a bit of a buzzkill.


マチに一本 。。。

The sharp crack of sticks, the occasional shouts of "hi no yojin" break the quiet of the early evening. It's the day before New Year's Eve and the neighborhood fire watch team is making its yearly round through the empty streets of Narita Nishi.  It's a tradition that harks back to sometime in the Edo period, when the big wooden cities that became the megalopolises of Japan were springing up. Wood means fire. Tokyo itself burned so often that residents in a sort of desperate joke referred to the great conflagrations as the flowers of Edo (Edo no hana). The tradition of community fire patrols lives on, more as tradition than practicality.  But a sure sign of the coming New Year celebration are the teams of folks, one carrying a paper lantern illuminated with a candle, one with wooden clackers, one or two with flashlights, reminding folks to "be careful with fire."  Considering the strange flame spitting, noxious heating contraptions found in many households and businesses and the equally strange and terrifying wiring of many a building here "hi no yojin" is still an admonition to take seriously.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Menya Musashi Kodo 麺屋武蔵 虎洞

This kodo (tiger's cave) is a fashionable, yet funky little ramenya a couple minutes from the Kichijoji station. As part of Takeshi Yamada's mini-empire, this great little place looks like an old-fashioned eatery, creating some very authentic and tasty traditional style ramen, along with creative seasonal variations.

Ramen, for some reason gets a bad rap. It could be the 1958 invention by Momofuku Ando, Top Ramen, that gives it the pentimento of poverty, rubism, and bad memories of undergraduate life. It could be some simple jingoism -whether from the gaijin viewpoint of Japanese culinary hegemony or the Japanese viewpoint of ramen's roots in Chinese culture. Many Japanese feel that ramen is not quite as Japanese as udon or soba. But like almost all food in Japan, it did come from elsewhere. And like many a culinary wonder in Japan, what becomes of this simple dish of noodles can be amazing.

Granted, there are a zillion ramen joints throughout Tokyo that leave much to be desired. Ah, but when you come upon a good one, mark it on the map. And when you come upon a great one, make it part of your life.

Case in point is the ramen from Menya Musashi Kodo. Today's choice was a simple, yet classic, variation - an aji tama shio ramen. And let's make that karai (味玉辛ら〜麺).  That's a luscious bowl of perfectly cooked fresh ramen noodles with menya (salted, then reconstituted bamboo shoots, cha shu, a few shreds of Japanese leek, a couple of squares of nori, an egg perfectly cooked in shoyu and who-knows-what, all swimming in a rich broth red with hot spice. There's nothing quite like it after a grueling walk through the food department at Lon Lon, listening to incessant Christmas music. It makes it all worth it.

Let's talk about the ramen itself - the noodles. They are made from wheat, salt, water, and the special ingredient - kansui. Kansui is an alkaline mineral water, containing sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate, and sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid. Kansui was named after the water from Inner Mongolia's Lake Kan which contained large amounts of these minerals and was said to be perfect for making these noodles. Making noodles with kansui give them a distinctive yellowish hue and a firm texture that holds up to rapid boiling. The ramen at Menya Musashi are about as perfect as a noodle can be. Toothsome, staying firm until the last drop of broth is slurped, they are the definition of ramen. 

The cha shu, cut thin, is supremely flavorful. A little goes a long way. The eggs are a thing of true beauty. The soy-colored outer albumen gives way to a pearly whiteness. At the center the yolk is firm along the outer edge of the sphere, giving way to a perfectly liquid, gooey center. How do the Japanese cook eggs this way?  The veggies and the nori, perfect in proportion and accent. 

And the broth itself - amazing. Just karai enough to bring up a nice little sweat, nicely garlicky, hot, and rich.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

笹みどり - Sasa Midori

Exploring enka. There's a great record store near the Tokiwadai station. Bins and bins of 7 inch enka records. Grabbing a handful for covers alone I managed to score an old Sasa Midori record.

Still performing, Midori-san embodies the best of enka tradition. Soulful, graceful, yet plumbing the depths of emotion. Why enka doesn't have the cache of fado is a mystery. Yet enka is still considered camp, instead of soul. Perhaps, like many traditions, history has passed it by. The living tradition, like blues, like soul, like rap, becomes the playground of revivalists and mannerists. The place it originally came from no longer exists. The smoky bars and pleasure districts of postwar Edo are shadows of what they once were, replaced by the faux fashion of Ginza and the fragile coat of glitz that covers Shinjuku.

She hit the scene in 1965. Her second big hit was 下町育ち(Being Brought Up Downtown), and the rest was enka history.