Shannon Kuhn: Japanese New Year in Spenard

Shannon Kuhn
Yokan is a sweet jelly dessert, made with red bean paste, agar and sugar
Shannon Kuhn
New Year's dishes are referred to in Japan as osechi ryori. With the exception of the soup, they are typically stewed in sugar, pickled, dried, or salted.
Shannon Kuhn
Two or three mochi (sticky rice cakes) are stacked on one another with a mandarin orange on top. Called Daidai, this signifies several generations of luck.
Shannon Kuhn
From left: Jim Parker, Jane Yokoyama, David Parker and Sam Parker.
Shannon Kuhn
Homemade sticky rice with sesame seeds.
Shannon Kuhn

As the year's end approached, Jane Yokoyama found herself busy in her Spenard kitchen.

This was to be expected, as she was preparing for her annual Japanese New Year open house. She had over a dozen dishes to make, each symbolic and to be eaten on the first day of the year.

Her two sons Sam and David were home for the holidays and put to work, along with her husband Jim Parker.

"I couldn't do it without their help," Yokoyama said. "This is a team effort."

Yokoyama, a retired science teacher with the Anchorage School District, has been throwing a Japanese New Year party ever since she first moved to Alaska in 1985.

In North America, Christmas is one of the biggest annual holidays, but in Japan the most important and elaborate holiday is Oshogatsu -- the celebration of the New Year.

Japanese culture encompasses over a thousand years of tradition and ritual, and food is no exception. Ingredients, preparations and even colors each have their own story, symbolism and seasonal importance. New Year's has its own meal, full of dishes that are made specifically to be eaten the first day of the year.

There are also food traditions on New Year's Eve. The Parker-Yokoyama family ate soba on Dec. 31, like they always do. The long strands of noodles symbolize a long life.

It was historically taboo to cook on New Year's Day in Japan, since you could potentially cut or burn yourself in the kitchen, which was thought to lead to a year full of misfortune.

Yokoyama acknowledged that tradition dictated she should have prepared everything ahead of time and been out of the kitchen on the first.

"What you do on the first day is supposedly telling of what you will do the rest of the year," she laughed while making ozoni (soup) and plating dishes. "I should be resting!"

New Year's Day dishes are referred to in Japan as "osechi ryori." With the exception of the soup, all foods are eaten at room temperature, and they are typically stewed in sugar, pickled, dried, or salted for preservation.

Each dish is meticulously plated in a jubako: a ornate, lacquered stacking box. Yokoyama used the jubako boxes that belonged to her aunt, who passed away in 2013.

"I got emotional putting them out this year," she said quietly.

The combination of red and white is a theme in many osechi dishes and symbolizes happiness and celebration. When Yokoyama was growing up, her mother made osechi every New Year's Day. Yokoyama has shared the tradition with her husband, and passed it on to her sons and the community.

"She's been doing this as long as I can remember," her son David said.

Throughout the afternoon, several dozen guests were welcomed and offered auspicious eats. The house was filled with laughter and warmth.

Another Japanese custom is to send postcards on New Year's Day. The Parker-Yokoyamas make a family portrait postcard every year for guests to take home, which highlights their sense of humor. One year everyone had a mustache. This year was a spoof of the Beatles' "Let it Be" album cover.

With bellies full of food and luck, visitors slowly made their way out into the snowy streets and back home. The New Year was indeed off to a very good, and delicious, beginning.

Japanese New Year Food (Osechi nyori) Guide

• Kuri-Kinton: Sweetened and mashed sweet potatoes mixed with mashed chestnuts. The golden color of the dish represents a wish for prosperity and financial success.

• Renkon: Boiled and sliced lotus root, to display the characteristic patterns inside. The root has holes in it, which symbolize seeing ahead into the New Year.

• Mochi: A sticky rice cake that symbolizes good luck and prosperity.

• Ozoni: A traditional New Year's soup, eaten for good luck. Each household has its own way of making ozoni. The must-have ingredient is a piece of mochi (sticky rice cake) that is dropped in the soup before serving.

• Daidai: A decoration of two or three mochi stacked on one another with a mandarin orange on top to signify several generations of luck.

• Gomama: Dried whole sardines that have been cooked in mirin, sugar and soy sauce and then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Because of the large number of tiny fish, this symbolizes health and a bountiful harvest.

• Red snapper: Usually raw and eaten plain or with rice, this signifies good luck.

• Kuromame: Large black soybeans simmered with sugar and soy sauce. Full of nutrients, this dish symbolizes energy and health.

• Kazunoko: Herring or salmon roe, seasoned with seaweed and soy sauce. These crunchy roe sacs contain thousands of eggs (and salmon roe is also lucky red) and symbolize a wish for fertility.

• Bamboo: Boiled and diced bamboo shoots symbolize fast and strong growth.

• Kinpira Gobo: Spicy-salty-sweet, this dish consists of shredded burdock root and carrots, tossed in sugar, soy sauce and red chili pepper flakes. Burdock can only be found in the specialty Asian grocery stores in town and is a long root that symbolizes the Japanese ideal of a long and stable life.

• Ko-Haku-Namusu: Pickled carrots, daikon and radishes, put together to display red and white colors and symbolize happiness and a reminder to remember your roots. All three vegetables are commonly grown locally in Alaska.

• Whole salmon or fish: Serving the fish whole is for endurance and returning to your place of origin. Yokoyama only had a filet, so her son David added a head and tail cut out of paper for symbolic representation.


By Shannon Kuhn
Daily News correspondent