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Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: 重箱, jūbako, multi-layered box to serve food at New Year’s.

The jūbako is like a Ph.D. in Japanese culture in a box, how to start? The oshinagaki (menu) lists 43 items, in Japanese, so there was some kanji dictionary work for the names. But nothing on the palate was completely unfamiliar, a lot of comforting friends in that box.

A whole baby sea bream swam in a sea of preserved vegetables and fish. A jar of kuromame (sweet cooked black beans) was nestled one one side, like grandma had sent over her blue-ribbon preserves. To fully appreciate this bounty one must study the traditional meanings of the foods, the name puns (see below), the visual appeal and arrangement, the complex recipe preparations, the history of foods that have been eaten since ancient times (black soybeans, sardines) and the modern additions (black pork, beef).

And then you just tuck in.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Top layer, 22 different items, including sea bream, ankimo tofu (monkfish liver pate), smoked salmon wrapped in many layers of thinly sliced daikon, kuri kinton (chestnuts in sweet yam paste), kinkan mitsuni (kumquat that was sweet simmered), tataki gobo (smashed burdock root with sesame sauce), house made karasumi (preserved bottarga, i.e., mullet roe), red and white kamaboko (fish paste), kararashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with mustard, ginko nuts, and more.

Arrangement of the food: The top layer of the box actually has two layers of food, laid out in a traditional format of celebratory foods on top, with a second layer of preserved foods beneath, the second box having the third and fourth layers of seafood and meats and then stewed vegetables. The visual appeal of the box is heightened by the names that are puns for good luck and success in the new year.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: 田作り, tazukuri, soy-glazed baby sardines. The name is a pun for “fertility.”

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Bottom layer, 21 items, which included winter Spanish mackerel yuan yaki, black pork belly miso yaki, chicken balls, house made datemaki (a fish and egg sweet omelet), sabazushi (a pressed mackerel sushi), salmon roe in a bamboo cup, and much more.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Detail, bottom layer.

We’ve been feasting for several days. It’s preserved food meant to save the women (ahem, the cooks) of the house from having to prepare food in the first days of the new year. Some standouts: the black pork miso yaki, the sweet-simmered kumquats, the house-made karasumi (mullet roe), roasted duck, the glaze-grilled Spanish mackerel. Quite an experience, maybe next year I’ll make some myself…

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Sushi Taro Osechi
Photo: Sushi Taro’s Osechi ryōri (New Year’s food)

That wrapped box is a bit of a pink tease, hmm?

I just received an e-mail from my former Japanese teacher in Yokohama. She thanked me for my nenga jo (New Year’s greeting card) and wrote that my Japanese had gotten better. I hadn’t told her that 10 handwritten lines of Japanese took me hours to compose, as I built a wall of dictionaries and textbooks around myself. So much for my past resolutions to study hard, gambarimasu, and all that. Nevertheless, here we are at the end of 2009 and I haven’t given up on studying the language and enjoying bits of Japanese culture in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2010 there will be more sake tasting reports on this blog, more outings to Japanese restaurants, and a report on an upcoming trip to a Japanese-style B&B in rural Virginia that has a traditional Japanese bath. My heart just got a bit fluttery with happiness.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Octopus, wakame, cucumber, and salmon salad with ponzu dressing.

A few weeks back we were at Sushi Taro and we placed an order for osechi. Osechi ryōri is traditional Japanese New Year’s food. Kyoto Foodie has an excellent series of posts about it, including the symbolic meaning of the various foods. Carlos and I had taken a class in Tokyo on osechi taught by Elizabeth Andoh, so we are eager to try Sushi Taro’s version.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Katsuo (bonito) nigiri-zushi. Part of the “Sushi Tokujo” set.

Lunch at Sushi Taro today was relaxing. I watched many couples and families (99% of Japanese descent) arrive to pick up their osechi. They hoisted the pink-wrapped boxes with a slight hesitation (it’s a heavy box!), and turned to walk down the stairs. I toasted a few of them as I drank warmed Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo. Yes, warmed properly by putting the tokkuri in a pan of water, not boiled to death in the microwave (I asked). The nose was koji and a bit of crème caramel, the taste started with peppermint alcohol and finished with a lovely lingering tail of sweet almond nougat.

I was buzzed before I even drank the sake. New Year’s makes me crazy and full of wary hopefulness. Life is like a box of salted fish roe and dried baby sardines.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Hijiki with soy beans.

Happy New Year! We’ll undress the jubako tomorrow…

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