Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Oseibo

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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!

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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.

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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!

Japanese Street Food:  Yakitori!

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Who doesn’t love grilled chicken on skewers?

Yakitori is one of the most popular and ubiquitous types of kushiyaki found in Japan and in areas where Japanese food is popular. Yakitori are bite-sized pieces of chicken, skewered and grilled. In Japan, yakitori can be found at yakitori-ya restaurants, street food festival stands and more commonly, at izakaya, or bar and grill style restaurants.

Having them at a street fair or izakaya is quite an experience!

Generally paired with beer or sake, yakitori are perfect for after-work happy hour or after-party noshing. There are quite a few varieties of yakitori. One of the most popular ones is tsukune, which are ground chicken meatballs, glazed with a thin teriyaki-style sauce and often accompanied by shichimi pepper. Negima yakitori are small pieces of chicken thigh skewered on bamboo sticks with stalks of green onion, and occasionally salted or glazed. Without the green onion, these yakitori are called momo, literally meaning “thigh”. Kawa is a traditional yakitori preparation where chicken skin is folded and grilled extra crispy. Tebasaki are grilled chicken wings. Sunagimo are chicken gizzards, rebaa are chicken livers and nankotsu are breast cartilage… marinated, glazed and grilled to perfection. You can even get chicken heart, neck and hind end!

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Grilling yakitori is an art form. Binchotan charcoal is used to heat the grill, which is smokeless and odorless, and made from hard Japanese oak. The wood is fired at extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-poor environment and quickly cooled to make it smooth and long-burning. This charcoal is the best to grill with, as it doesn’t adulterate the flavor of the food.

Eating yakitori is half the fun. Skewers are usually ordered in sets of two or as part of a combination plate called moriawase. You pick your sauce or tare, or just have your skewer sprinkled with salt. Sometimes, ordering sides of boiled eggs, potatoes or vegetables rounds out the meal, but mostly yakitori are delicious with beer and sake and good friends!

Share your izakaya or yakitori-ya story with us… from here in the US or from your trip or stay in Japan. Then stay tuned for next month’s street food showcase!