Japanese-American New Year’s food traditions transcend time

Japanese-American New Year’s food traditions transcend time

The Jin Matsumoto family is so eager for their annual ozoni that they gather around the table at 2 a.m., right after cleaning up the confetti, streamers and champagne glasses from their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Ms. Matsumoto, a sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, and executive culinary director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, looks forward to eating the brothy soup swirling with mochi chunks every year.

Ozoni is the usual New Year’s Day food for many Japanese Americans, whether they are Nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants, or Yonsei, fourth-generation Japanese Americans. Beginning in the 1880s, the first large wave of Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States, and although many New Year’s Day tables have evolved to include dishes from other cultures, traditional Japanese dishes remain.

When chef Charles Namba was a child, he patiently toasted squares of mochi every New Year’s Day on ceramic grates in the floor fireplace in his Los Angeles home. The soft white cubes of steamed rice will develop a nice char and puff up like a little balloon after enough time on the heat. It was then placed in a convenient ozoni bowl studded with chunks of chicken, wilted spinach, and shiitake mushrooms. His family found it especially nutritious after spending a night stuffing themselves with cookies and watching the Times Square Ball on TV. The soup is also “very important” to chef Chris Ono of Hansi Restaurant, a pop-up in the same Los Angeles cultural center where Matsumoto works, and his family. It’s something they make every year, making sure to source their mochi from the local Buddhist temple, Mr. Ono said.

Stephen Pursley, chef and owner of Menya Rui in St. Louis, spends the first day of the year eating another type of soup: Okinawa soba. The gentle broth, made with dashi and pork, is a great base for wheat-based soba noodles traditionally eaten in Okinawa, off the southern coast of mainland Japan. In America, Mr. Pursley’s resourceful mother would sometimes use linguine when she couldn’t find Okinawan soba noodles. He now makes pasta from scratch.

Mr. Namba is also fond of soba — the most popular version of buckwheat — making special versions with tempura lobster or duck for New Year’s at his restaurants Tsubaki and Ototo in Los Angeles.

As with many global New Year traditions, the dishes have strong symbolic meanings. Ozoni is associated with good health and good luck, with mochi indicating longevity. Mr Pursley said soba noodles represented breaking ties with the hardships of the previous year and starting over, as well as a long life.

Perhaps the best example of symbolic Japanese New Year foods is osechi ryori, or a box filled with a variety of traditional New Year dishes, each with a specific meaning. Every year, Chef Niki Nakayama serves a version at her restaurant n/naka in Los Angeles. Kuromame, or sweet black soybeans, implies a desire for good health; Datemaki, or Japanese rolled omelet, is like a roll for gaining knowledge; and kurikenton, a vibrant mixture of Japanese sweet potatoes flavored with chestnut syrup and topped with golden candied chestnuts, which represents gold and brings economic wealth.

Chef Jesse Ito’s father, Masaharu Ito, also cooked the elaborate osechi ryori at his restaurant Fuji, which he opened in southern New Jersey, outside Philadelphia, in 1979 and ran for 37 years. Exhausted from cooking an entire osechi ryori dish at the restaurant, Masaharu celebrated with something simpler at home: oyakodon, an easy chicken-and-egg rice dish that Jesse describes as “the ultimate Japanese comfort food.” But Masaharu was most excited about making something more local: hoagies. He bought bread from the Wawa supermarket chain and filled it with cold cuts, provolone, and a large quantity of olives. “They were great,” Mr. Ito said fondly.

It is not uncommon for Japanese-American New Year’s tables to include other culinary influences. “Third and fourth generation Japanese Americans are beginning to incorporate foods that were familiar to the Japanese American communities in which they grew up,” said Ms. Matsumoto, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States. As with hoagies in South Jersey, it’s not rare to find tamales on the table in Los Angeles, or pies and tubs of ice cream for dessert across America.

Chinese dishes such as chow mein and wontons are a staple at many Japanese-American New Year’s gatherings. “Chinese food has historically been a part of Japanese societies,” Ms. Matsumoto said. After Japanese Americans were released from internment camps in 1946, Chinese restaurants were among the few places that took them in immediately, she said. “It was a safe haven,” she said. That’s why Mr. Ono sometimes makes ozoni with char siu, the Chinese dish of roasted pork.

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