Winter warmers

By on November 29, 2008
Photo © Elena Derevstova
Usually Japanese winters last from December through February, and while not as harsh or bitter as some Western winters, the cold can still creep into your bones. There are of course a myriad of possibilities to keep warm during the winter months, and it ultimately depends on each individual’s threshold for cold, however, these are all proven effective, tasty and fun alternatives. So be warm and enjoy!

From Where the Cold Comes
Located where cold, dry Russian air masses meet warmer, moister air coming off the Pacific, Japan’s winters can result in precipitation, snowfall, and very cold temperatures.

With ritto, or the establishment of winter falling on or around November 7th or 8th, so too are expected the winter’s first chilly Siberian winds. Closer to November 23rd, or 24th, shosetsu, or the lesser snow, arrives but mostly in the mountains and Japan’s northernmost regions, followed by taisetsu, the greater snow, on December 7th or 8th, introducing the season’s first frost and light snow cover.

But it is toji, or the Winter Solstice, on December 21st or 22nd that makes winter’s arrival ominously official when, in order to ward off any potential dangers, people eat a rice gruel with red beans to exorcise the plague god. Furthermore, to bolster the immune system, fresh yuzu (citron) is added to the evening bath, while eating kabocha (pumpkin) on this day is said to guarantee one’s health all year long.

Food as Warmth
Traditional Japanese cuisine takes up from where traditional Japanese housing leaves off. While the latter is notorious for being unsuited for winter weather due to thin building materials and little-to-no insulation, the former brings cozy relief via simplicity, taste and warmth.

Nabemono, or one-pot meals, are usually cooked at the table over charcoal, electric, natural gas or propane stoves. Think of them as hearty soups in whose preparation everyone contributes, and what include a variety of vegetables and meats, or any other complimentary stock.

Sukiyaki is the most famous nabemono outside of Japan, and is a mixture of beef, vegetables and tofu cooked at the table in a cast-iron pan.

Oden is a rich stew of daikon radish, konnyaku (devil’s-tongue jelly), fish dumplings, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and almost anything else appetizing. This particular soup is available at convenience stores across Japan as a quick relief from the day or evening chill.

Shabushabu, a more extravagant form of the humble misutaki, is yet another soup-like dish usually cooked at the table in a deep copper vessel and filled with an assortment of vegetables including: Chinese cabbage, trefoil, shitake mushrooms, onions, meats and broth. Paper-thin slices of beef are flash cooked in boiling stock, then dipped in a mixture of sesame seeds, vinegar and soy sauce.  

After the meat is finished, the balance of the vegetables are boiled and similarly dipped and eaten.  Finally, to the remaining broth is added noodles for a rich and flavorful soup.

Yosenbe, a mélange of chicken, fish, shellfish, and vegetable stock, is similar to the others, but is simmered rather than completely cooked.

Rounding out the variety of one-pot soups is yudofu, or tofu in soup, in which tofu cubes are laid in the pot and covered with stock, simmering until they float. The cubes can be eaten plain or alternately dipped in soy sauce diluted with sweetened sake, citrus juice and/or vinegar, warming to the bones of anyone who eats them.

Comfort Foods
Every culture has its comfort foods-dishes that are not only easy to prepare but taste good, and bring both physical and spiritual warmth. Like soft, fuzzy clothes, they envelope people with a sense of security and comfort. These one-pot meals are Japanese comfort food, as much for their simplicity as for their sense of communion. Friends and family gather round these flexible dishes to prepare and share the food, and themselves.

Itadakimasu!

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