Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Oseibo

oseibo01

The spirit of cooperation and coexistence permeates Japanese culture in so many ways, from washoku to coexistence with nature to how relationships are nurtured.

Giving gifts is a long-standing tradition among the Japanese, especially at the end of the year with the tradition of oseibo.

Oseibo is the custom to show goodwill and gratitude to those who have contributed to one’s life, such as to relatives, bosses, or caretakers. Oseibo gifts are often items that the recipient uses every day, such as condiments, cooking oils and sauces, detergents and cleaners, as well as specialty items like alcoholic beverages, gourmet sausages and seafood. Gift certificates also make popular gifts. Oseibo gifts never go to waste, as the items are always useful!

oseibo02

Department stores frequently setup special sections for oseibo gifts, with the monetary value of gift options ranging from 2000-5000 yen, or 20-50 US dollars. Once an oseibo gift has been selected, how it is packaged and presented is just as important as what it contains. Each gift is packaged nicely and wrapped in special decorative paper labeled with language specifically denoting that it is an oseibo gift. The gifts are either delivered by the store or online retailer or given in-person following the Japanese tradition of giving and receiving with two hands.

Oseibo traces its roots to the Japanese custom to pray for one’s ancestors’ spirits during obon in July and on New Year’s Day. During these times, neighbors and relatives used to exchange the offerings. This tradition turned into gift giving, once in the summer (ochugen) and once at the end of the year (oseibo). Today, oseibo is practiced as a custom to show formal respect and gratitude.

Processed with VSCO with s3 preset

Oseibo gifts at a Japanese market

Because oseibo gifts are practical as well as pleasing, recipients always find creative ways to incorporate their gifts into their lives, especially when the gifts are of food items or beverages. An oseibo gift of whiskey or brandy turns into a lovely hot toddy during the cold winter months. A gift of smoked seafood turns into a lovely terrine de poisson or seafood jeon. And gifts of gourmet meats and sauces can be used for barbequing and stir-frying teppanyaki.

What do you think would make a nice oseibo gift? And if you receive an oseibo gift, what do you plan to make with it? Let us know in the comments below, and from Zojirushi to you, we hope you have a great end of year!

Passport to Yum – Zojirushi’s Favorite Rice Desserts & Snacks

okaki

We’ve loved all of the rice dishes we’ve tried this year, whether from Asia, South America, the United States or Europe! But we can’t end the year without discussing the myriad desserts and snacks that are made from rice.

Just like those dishes that use rice in its grain or noodle form, many cultures have used this ancient grain in sweet desserts and savory snacks.

The ever-popular rice cracker is a sophisticated snack when made Japanese-style. There are two types of rice crackers most commonly made: senbei and okaki (seen in top photo). Senbei crackers, which originated in China, are made with Japanese short grain rice called uruchi mai and okaki are made with sweet, glutinous rice.  These rice crackers come in various shapes, including square, rectangular, round and as balls, and they can be made by baking, charcoal grilling or deep frying them. We love making this relatively easy okaki-style rice cracker at home, called kakimochi. Try them out and tell us what you think!

chakli

Chakli (photo by Milindb05)

Indian food also has a rich tradition of creating savory rice crackers, one of which is chakli. Chakli is made using rice flour mixed with gram flour, lots of spices such as turmeric, ajwain, cumin, chili and clarified butter, or ghee. The batter is poured through a chakli maker into hot oil, and fried until crispy. Whenever you’re in the mood for a spicy rice snack, try making chakli.

Desserts made from rice are just as popular as snacks, starting with rice pudding! Rice pudding is made across the globe, from Southeast Asian kheer to South American arroz con leche. Arroz con Leche Colombiano is sweet and redolent of cinnamon. Long-grain rice is cooked in a mixture of milk, condensed milk, water, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and butter. The final product is cooled until thick and creamy… just perfect for a holiday occasion.

mangostickyrice

Mango sticky rice (photo by Dennis Wong)

Another well-known rice dessert is mango sticky rice, found in many Thai restaurants across the United States and in beach cities across Thailand. Soaked sticky rice is cooked and then simmered in coconut milk, sugar and salt, and topped with peeled Thai mangoes. It’s a refreshing way to end a Thai meal!

Rice desserts can be simple or more colorful and intricate, like the traditional Chinese Ba Bao Fan and the Korean gyeongdan. Ba Bao Fan or “Eight Treasure Rice Pudding” is a traditional dessert served for Chinese New Year in China. This dessert is made by layering eight “treasures” or special ingredients such as sugar-glazed fruit or and sweetened beans onto a base of glutinous rice and sugar. It gets its name from the belief that the number eight is a lucky number for Chinese people because of the similarity of the sound of “ba” (eight) and “fa” which means wealth and prosperity.

babaofan

Ba Bao Fan (photo by kawanet)

Gyeongdan is a rice cake made using glutinous rice powder and hot water. The paste is formed into round balls which are coated with multicolored sweet bean powders.

No matter what you’re in the mood for… rice desserts, rice snacks, rice, rice noodles, rice paper, rice dumplings… this amazing food can satisfy all your cravings! We hope you make a lovely dish for your New Year celebrations and that you share them with us!

Snow Talk

mainWhen I first heard about the unusually early November snowfall in Tokyo, the first time in over 54 years for the nation’s capital, it immediately brought back memories for me because, yes, I am old enough to have been there for the last time that happened. Just to put that period of time in perspective, in 1962 there was no bullet train yet, there were no skyscrapers in Tokyo, and there were no Western style toilets yet! The second thing that came to mind was global warming, but that discussion belongs on another blog.

Here in sunny SoCal we don’t do snow, do we? But we do make snow–we make it at our local mountains during ski season. And we can drive up there in a few hours! So you can grumble all you want about not having real snow, but it’s hard to complain when the surf and mountains are so conveniently close!

Snow MachinessnowmachinePersonally, I find it incredible that real snow can be blown out of machines and cover a whole mountain enough to ski on. These snowmakers literally break water up into small particles, freeze them and blow them into the air in one process. They use massive amounts of water to do this–to cover an area of 200ft. by 200ft. with 6 inches of snow, they need 75,000 gallons of water! Most ski areas are converting 5000 gallons of water per minute, into snow.

And besides making snow for skiing, these machines can create snow blankets to protect crops during freezing weather and are also used to test the snow worthiness of cars and airplanes. Recently snowmaking has resorted to using reclaimed waste water, which not only conserves water during our drought–it gives all of our ski resorts a way to stay in business.

Snowflake PerfectionflakeThis amazing photograph of a single snowflake was taken by amateur photographer Alexey Kljatov, who says that anyone can do the same thing with a simple point-and-shoot camera and a lot of persistence, patience and luck. This is his hobby, and it fascinates him for the same reasons snowflakes mesmerize all of us–they’re beautiful to look at up close.

Even though they say that no two snowflakes are alike, that’s not entirely true. If you look at them with a microscope, down to the molecular level, of course they’re all different. But at the superficial level, they start to look alike and can be classified into 35 distinct shapes. These flakes form their distinct shapes based on the atmospheric conditions surrounding them. Different conditions and temperatures, different shapes.

What causes snow anyway? When water vapor in the air drops below freezing, it crystallizes around particles of dust–then boom, snowflakes!

The Sacred Snow LeopardleopardI had a friend once who traveled to Nepal and came back with all kinds of insights into the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Nepal will do that to you I guess, being close to the highest elevation point on the planet.

Imagine being high up in the mountains at close to 17,000 feet. The snow leopard hunts wild sheep and goats in silence, almost as quietly as the falling snow. They are built for this harsh environment, with long thick fur to protect them against the cold and wide padded paws that make for natural snowshoes. They also have extra long tails which help them balance when climbing steep, rocky slopes. These magnificent big cats are fascinating to me, and sadly they are on the verge of extinction as farmers encroach on their habitat, and natural food sources become harder to find due to climate change. They are also being hunted and killed by poachers for their fur.

It is estimated that there are only about 6000 snow leopards left in the world, most of them in China and other parts of Central Asia. Interestingly, they have been protected the most by Tibetan monks, who live in close proximity to their habitats. Buddhist beliefs dictate a respect and compassion for all living things, and protecting the snow leopard is just one aspect of their spiritual values. For more information on the disappearing snow leopard you can go to the Snow Leopard Conservancy site.

Hawaiian SnowshaveiceHa! Just an excuse to get my favorite dessert into this post! Shave Ice is basically snow with syrup on it, right? So don’t eat the snow off the mountain–it might be recycled waste water! Eat shave ice instead!

photo credits: snow in Tokyo by Shizuo Kambayashi (AP) for Japan Times, snow machines courtesy of SMI Snowmakers, snowflake by Alexey Kljatov, snow leopard courtesy of The Hindu, shave ice courtesy of Lynn’s Hawaiian Ice

Japanese Street Food: Winter Oden

oden02With the cold months of winter beginning, it’s time for oden.

Oden is a one-pot dish full of vegetables, fish cakes, tofu, eggs and konnyaku, all simmered in seasoned dashi broth. It’s pure comfort food, full of savory ingredients that have soaked up hot seasoned broth, perfect for the cold months of winter.

Oden is enjoyed by everyone in Japan, from children on their way home from school to homeward bound working professionals stopping at street vendors for oden and sake. When made at home, oden includes special ingredients loved by each family member. One of the characteristic ingredient is konnyaku, a jellied yam cake. Those who enjoy oden choose the ingredients to add to their bowl, sometimes adding chikuwa (fish cake), ground fish balls, kinchaku (fried tofu pouches), daikon radish, boiled eggs or vegetables like cabbage and potatoes. Oden is best when garnished with hot Japanese mustard.

Oden is a cross between a nimono, or simmered dish, and nabemono, or hot pot. The name oden is derived from dengaku, which refers to pieces of tofu and konnyaku skewered, basted with miso paste and grilled. Dengaku was typically served during colder months, and around the time of the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573), the dish was modified to be simmered in seasoned broth.

oden01

A shop advertises oden

Oden is prepared with variations depending on the region in Japan. In Tokyo and its environs, the broth is made from dashi and koikuchi shoyu, or dark soy sauce, and is typically salty in flavor. In the Osaka area, broth is made from dashi and usukuchi shoyu, or light soy sauce, with hints of sweetness. Oden from the Kyoto area has a sharp and sweet taste and in Nagoya, the broth is miso-based.

No matter what style of broth oden is made with, the warmth and savoriness of the ingredients characterize comfort during the coming winter. Oden can be found at street vendors, izakaya restaurants, and even at convenience stores where the clerks will either assemble your oden for you or let you make your own creation at the self-service counters.

One of our favorite oden recipes can be found here, and we hope you will try it out during this winter season.

Until next time, stay warm and don’t forget to look out for our last post about Japanese street food for 2016!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Wagashi

wagashi01

Throughout the year, we’ve focused on the essentials of Japanese cooking, from basic pantry items to the principles of washoku, Japan’s culinary tradition. From the basic ingredients of sa shi su se so (sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso) to the more complex creation of dashi and umami tastes, we’ve explored how to prepare appetizers, soups, pickles and main dishes. This month, our post focuses on wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets.

Wagashi, which literally means “Japanese sweet snack”, are bite-sized confections. They are traditionally made with simple, plant-based ingredients. The simplicity of the ingredients, however, is deceptive, as wagashi are created based on washoku principles of the Five Tastes and the Five Senses and take into account the seasonality of the natural world.

dorayaki

Dorayaki, or sweet pancakes filled with red bean paste

Wagashi is said to have originated in Japan during the time Japanese emissaries returned to the country from visiting China in the 8th century.  The first truly Japanese form of wagashi was a mochi and azuki bean dumpling sweetened with the juice of various vines. As this delicacy became more popular and spread to cities influenced by the aristocracy along the west coast of Japan, such as Matsue and Kanazawa, wagashi creation and design flourished. In the 12th century, wagashi became part of formal tea ceremonies and was paired with bitter matcha tea. When sugar was introduced to Japan in the 16th century, wagashi became easier and less expensive to produce, making it available to the general population.

The variety of wagashi is vast, and it is classified using a few criteria: formal vs. every day, production method, moisture content and shape.

hinamatsuriwagashi

Girl’s day wagashi

Formal wagashi are served at tea ceremonies or special events and are sculpted to represent a seasonal motif for the particular event, such as cherry blossoms in the spring to celebrate Girl’s Day. Every day wagashi are found at street vendors and shops and come in the form of dumplings or cakes or specialized shapes, with various fillings and toppings, usually made in the morning to be eaten that day.

Some of the formal wagashi are crafted based on the seasons. Their base flavors include the five tastes–sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy–with a particular taste emphasized according to what is seasonally available. For example, in the spring, when people gravitate towards sour flavors, wagashi are flavored with oranges. Each piece is also crafted to appeal to the five senses, from the seasonal motifs of each shape, to the fragrance of the ingredients, to the taste, to the texture to the sounds of nature that are evoked when eating a piece.

mizuyoukan

Mizuyoukan, or soft sweet bean jelly

Making wagashi is considered a craft, and wagashi makers can be awarded the title of “Contemporary Master Craftsman”. Wagashi craftsmen take pride in creating confections that balance seasonal flavors and motifs, from traditional cherry blossoms to modern Santa Clauses, appealing to the tastes of all generations. Going to a wagashi shop will make you anticipate the season or special event or festival to come!

Modern wagashi are made with eggs, milk and chocolate, and also come in beautiful shapes and colors.

One type of wagashi commonly found in the United States is called daifuku, which can be made at home. Pair it with Matcha Tea and you have your own homemade snack break!

We’d love to hear about your wagashi experiences, so be sure to leave us a photo and a note in the comments below!