Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Japanese Christmas


14 December 2015

18 degrees - delightful

Spent morning loading up details of the overpriced chateau and the afternoon battling with brambles and cutting back old shrubs.  OH rang the UK estate agent to see about the progress of our offer on the house in Windermere and was told it had been refused (were they not going to tell us?)  OH upped the offer and asked for full information this morning. By early evening, nothing had happened so he rang back and the guy said he would be ringing the client in the morning.  He also said, in general, people selling in Windermere didn't need the money so were tougher on the prices.  I have to say, it is a hell of a lot more fun being a buyer than a seller.

Had a look through my cook books for something interesting and found the following extract from 'A Cook's Tour' by Ingeborn Relph and Penny Stanway.

A Japanese Christmas

On Christmas Day in a Christian home, the mother gets up early to prepare miso soup for breakfast and for the evening meal.  This is a fish based clear soup containing chopped up vegetables, tofu or small clams and flavoured with miso - a salty product made from fermented cooked soya beans - smells like very ripe cheese and has a strong though pleasant taste.  There is rice for breakfast with beaten raw egg and soy sauce.  Other breakfast foods include pickled vegetables, omelette and grilled fish, and tea is the usual accompaniment.

After breakfast the family may attend an early morning church service before the working day - only 1% of Japanese are Christians so the 25 December is not a public holiday.

To eat its evening meal, the family kneels on the large flat cushions known as sabuton in front of a low table.  The evenings can bee cold at Christmas time and the typical wooden houses are draughty.  In northern Japan there is snow from October right through to April or May.  In many homes there is no central heating and the only form of heating is from an electric heater under the top of the table.  An eiderdown quilt is draped over the table and the family sits or kneels with its feet in the warm under the quilt to eat.

Chopsticks are used to eat most foods although savoury egg custard for instance, is eaten with a china spoon.  Presentation is very important in Japanese cuisine and most families have a variety of china or lacquer bowls and they choose them according to the season or the colours and shapes of the food.

Their Buddhist and Shinto backgrounds influence the eating habits of the Japanese and give them respect for their oneness with nature and for the sacredness of the food they prepare and eat.  This is evidenced by the Grace they say before eating 'Itadakimasu' which means roughly 'I shall receive this food'.  To the Japanese, you are what you eat and food is considered best when kept as raw as possible.  The basic Japanese diet, unchanged for centuries, consists of rice, fish and vegetables.  Over recent years more meat and dairy produce has been creeping into the diet but remains very expensive due to the scarcity of suitable pasture ground in such a mountainous country.

For a meal on Christmas Day, bowls of cashew nuts, delicious deep fried seaweed tangle (fried finely sliced cabbage) dried fish or crunchy ginkgo nuts may be served as appetisers.  The ginkgo nuts are boiled first then fried to give a crunchy texture.

Oysters are a particularly good winter delicacy, as are red salmon eggs.  Tempura consists of pieces of at least six different kinds of fish and vegetables dipped into a light batter and fried.  The cooked foods are served immediately and each person dips theirs into a bowl of savoury sauce.  Tempura is a famous Japanese dish and is said to have been imported by the Portuguese traders centuries ago. The Portuguese, as good Catholics, rejected meat on Ember Days, which they called by the Latin name of Quattuor Tempora, the 'four times' of the year.  They asked for fried seafood instead, and so this became known as tempura.

Beef is served in the equally well known modern dish sukiyaki, which means 'grilled on the blade of a plough' as it was cooked by hunters.  Japanese buckwheat noodles or wheat noodles are among the most popular foods and would certainly be part of the Christmas meal, as would rice.  Noodles are dipped into soy sauce or into a broth containing spring onions.  

The name for rice, goban, means meal and most people eat it two or three times a day.  Sushi is another well known food of Japan and can be ordered in from a sushi shop.  A special treat is to have raw fish on top of tiny cakes of vinegared rice. These appear in exquisitely colourful and artistic form.  Maki sushi are sliced sushi rolls made by putting a piece of raw fish, such as red tuna fish or sea bass or green cucumber inside some vinegared rice, then wrapping this in a small sheet of nori seaweed and slicing across the roll.  sushi are eaten with soy sauce, Japanese horseradish wasabi)and think slices of ginger pickled in vinegar.

Sashimi - raw fish - is very popular.  Tuna, flounder, bonito, shrimp, abalone, squid, eel, salmon, cuttlefish, sole and sea bream are eaten raw, as is blow fish, whose original state contains a lethal poison.

There is a salad on the table, such as one of spinach and sesame seeds garnished with dried bonito shavings and there might be some hot savoury egg custard made from eggs, chicken, prawns or shrimps, mushrooms, fish cake, fish or chicken stock and celery or other green stuff.

Throughout the meal there is miso soup to drink, kept hot in a lidded lacquered bowl.  Green tea and perhaps sake or Japanese beer are popular drinks. Sake is said to be named after the city Osaka, the centre of sake production.

Desserts are not common at Japanese meals although nowadays city housewives may buy cheesecake or some pretty pressed rice cakes covered with sweetened red bean paste and cut into the shape of snowflakes.  Fruit is much appreciated and the Christmas meal is likely to be rounded off with satsumas or tangerines.  Traditionally the satsuma represents the flame coloured rising sun that will return in Spring to warm the earth and its people.

This human yearning for life and light to triumph over death and darkness reveals just how relevant the message of Christmas is to all people.