Winter Solstice In Japan: Yuzu Bath, O-Mochi, And More
Today is the shortest day of the year, as the planet tilts away from the sun and we have winter solstice here on the northern hemisphere. It is called 冬至 (tōji) and the same kanji are traditionally used in China, Korea and Vietnam as well. More details on wikipedia for Dongzhi Festival. In Korea they serve a special dish with rice dumplings and red azuki beans, on this day. It is called Dongji Patjuk, and Food in Korea has more details:
While making Patjuk as a seasonal food, they put pieces of glutinous rice cake shaped as a bird's egg, which has honey inside. This food also goes on the table for the memorial service and is often thrown into the door as a gesture to drive away misfortunes. On Dongji, each family make Patjuk to eat, and this is made by the process of mashing boiled red-beans or sieving them and making pieces of glutinous rice cake with the water the red-beans boiled in as the amount of bird's eggs would be. This rice cake is called 'Saealsim'. The finished Patjuk is put in the sanctuary first, and after putting it on some corners of the house, the members of the family gather at a place and get to eat it.
Here in Japan, the red azuki beans are popular in all kinds of snacks (including yōkan) with a mild sweet flavour that I like, and a soup called ozensai has o-mochi and azuki beans as the main ingredients.
However, often the products with azuki beans have other artificial flavours as well.
The term "traditional food" should be better respected and protected, and not be used for any kind of item the food industry may want to profit from.
What is o-mochi? Square cakes or balls of glutinous rice, which can symbolize reunion (because they are so sticky?) are called mochi, and it is a fantastic food to make you feel warm around this time of the year. Earlier this month, I was given genmai mochi and kusa mochi, two types that I hadn't tried before. Genmai mochi is made from genmai rice, and has a more rich texture. The kusa mochi contains the pale green herb yomogi, or mugwort (Artemisia princeps).
Mugwort, with its bitter flavour, is the ingredient that gives Swedish bäsk its special punch, and you couldn't make a Dry Martini without Vermouth, which also has mugwort or wormwood for that special hint of absinthe - but I could be wrong.
Kitazawa Seed has a variety of mugwort on sale, noting that it can be used in many dishes for cooks that want something extra: "Young leaves can be boiled, stewed or used fresh, but a little of their strong flavor goes a long way."
Making mochi the traditional way? You need a wooden bowl, preferable very heavy and stable. Place the rice cake inside and start pounding with a wooden club.
Easy? Yes, but it takes two to play. One person swings the club, hitting the rice, as the other (bravely) turns the rice by hand to make the pounding more even, as the gluten needs to be processed vigorously to aquire the right texture.
To make it even better, two people can swing the clubs, and with regular shouts, everyone will do their best to follow the rythm, to avoid injury.
I like slow food, but making mochi the traditional way sometimes requires a lot of speed!
Mochi de yomogi: Preparació d'un mochi de yomogi en una pastisseria de Nara (Japó).
But as I searched for images of 冬至 for this post, google gave me a lot of hits for something completely different. It turns out many people associate winter solstice in Japan with taking a hot bath, and adding lots of yuzu, the aromatic citrus fruit, to the waters. As I write this post, it has already gotten dark outside...
(Images of yuzu bath from Tateshina Park Hotel and Kahoku)