New year, rising sun 

Pointing firearms to the night sky and blasting away, like Iraqi insurgents celebrating a gory victory over the Great Satan, has been a New Year’s Eve tradition in Detroit, my birthplace, for as long as I can remember.

This moronic “tradition” is peculiar to our city (and the greater metro area), and is itself enough reason to stay inside, under a solid roof, on what the legendary Detroit newspaper columnist Doc Greene called “amateur night.” Besides, it’s a waste of good ball and powder.

When it comes to New Year’s tradition and celebration, the Japanese make us look like little pikers. If anyone has a reason to gnash their teeth and make explosive noise, they do. One of their traditions is centuries-old Joya-no-kane, the ringing of temple bells 108 times to chase off 108 sins of the flesh. (Judged by the content of Japanese TV and comic books, among other cultural artifacts of today’s Japan, the bell ringers are swimming upstream.) Combine the attempted banishment of temporal pleasure with the fact that bronze temple bells the size of an old Buick make downtown Detroit’s Millennium Bell sound like something mounted on old bicycle handlebars, and you might be able to understand howling at, and shooting at, the New Year’s Eve moon.

Instead, though the practice has changed dramatically over the centuries, they see in the New Year with osechi ryori, a feast with many dishes that originally was prepared in the last weeks of the old year and eaten during the first three days of the new.

I was reminded of this by Natasha Kelly Foreman, an enthusiastic and helpful reader in Hamtramck: “I write to you because it would be nice if folks learned about Japanese food beyond sushi, tempura and noodles (the best Japanese food is not these things).” She noted that three local markets — Koyama Shoten in Livonia, Noble Fish in Clawson and One World Market in Novi — “carry everything you could ever want” for a change-up to the usual New Year’s Eve stuff.

Modernity has had an immeasurable impact on Japanese culture, not the least of which was the gradual entry of women into the workplace during the past couple of decades. What had, despite appearances, always been a maternal society, has changed enormously with women finding themselves just as hellishly busy outside the home as men have long been.

This, among other things, changed the traditional nature of osechi ryori. What had been carefully and laboriously put together by housewives during the time leading to the event now is more often bought prepared, packaged and sold everywhere from 7-11 stores to the toniest restaurants.

Still, the New Year’s meal remains a steadfast tradition, although its usual three days have commonly been reduced to one simply because the wife is as tired as her old man.

Traditionally done, each dish had a symbolic meaning. There was always sea bream, a staple food “called a greedy corpse-eating fish in some cultures,” according to the now defunct Japanese business monthly Tradepia International, but highly regarded through the ages in Japan as something that has value, no matter what. And shrimp or prawns for longevity, their curved backs looking like the stooped posture of a very old man. Also marinated herring roe, the tiny yellow eggs somewhat like the delicious flying fish roe, tobiko, you’ve seen and possibly tried in metro Detroit sushi joints. Because a herring can carry many thousands of eggs, they symbolize abundant procreation. (This strikes me as a conflict with the 108 bells.)

Part of the osechi ryori tradition that is by no means dead is the presentation of the feast — at breakfast, lunch and dinner — in beautifully lacquered, partitioned boxes called jubako, similar to the familiar bento boxes that now are standard at worthwhile area Japanese restaurants. These are stacked, one tier per course, for three to five courses. Because, in conscientious Japanese cooking, presentation is an equal partner to flavor, the individual servings within each of the jubako compartments are arranged for eye appeal.

But the food is not all complicated or, even to Western tastes, weirdly foreign. You might want to give this very traditional recipe a go in your own kitchen:

Kurikinton (mashed sweet potato and chestnuts) – Peel one pound of sweet potatoes or yams; cut into small cubes and soak in plain water for two hours. Drain and rinse, bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil, add the spud chunks and cook until you can pierce them easily with a knife tip. Drain, return them to the dry pot, mash until smooth and add 1/2-cup sugar, a tablespoon of mirin (syrupy sweet rice cooking wine) and a small jar of chestnuts in sweet syrup. Stir it all together over low heat, then let cool before serving.

The ingredients are readily available, even in many supermarkets, but I go to Noble Fish for most of my Asian stuff. Should the need arise, it’s a routinely reliable source for most Japanese staples, including sushi-grade fish and fresh quail eggs.

There are plenty of other osechi ryori recipes online. And if you’re really interested in Japanese home cooking, the new and visually stunning book Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed, $35) will make your taste buds sit up and say howdy.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to rbohy@metrotimes.com

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