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« On Cloud Nine With Meringues | Main | Happy Holidays! »

Celebrating the New Year, Japanese Style

By Sandy Hu

For a Japanese-American kid growing up in Hawaii, there wasn’t a more exciting time than the New Year. Our holiday season was far from over after Christmas.  New Year’s brought firecrackers and feasting.

On New Year’s Eve, we kids, dressed in our new Christmas bathrobes, were out on our porch all night, blasting firecrackers, ostensibly to chase away evil spirits.  We did it for the sheer thrill, reveling in the bang and flash. The Camel brand produced smaller firecrackers for beginners; the Duck brand was twice the size, making a more substantial explosion.  Our arsenal also included cracker bombs, sparklers, roman candles and bottle rockets.

We rationed the firecracker packs so we could make a ruckus throughout the night, but ensuring we had set aside enough to string together to make a spectacular statement at midnight. As the clock struck 12, a cacophony of firecrackers would erupt, creating a wave of sound, rumbling and rolling down the hillside from the homes above us, our own explosions adding to the din, and a blanket of sulfurous smoke engulfed the neighborhood.  The phone rang continuously through the noise, as our aunts, living on the other side of the island, called to wish us a happy New Year. In the morning, our driveway would be littered with shreds of red paper and we would go out looking for unexploded ordnance to replay.

Mochi on the grill for soup

Food is integral to the Japanese New Year, with preparations beginning days ahead.  No New Year would be complete without mochi (rice cakes), which are enjoyed in many ways, including grilled and served in soup (ozoni) for the morning of the New Year. My family gathered with friends to cook and steam mochi rice, which was pounded using a heavy wooden mallet until all the grains were pulverized to create a silky-smooth mass that we shaped into patties. Today I use an electric mochi machine to cook and pound the rice.

You can see our machine in action here.


For an iPhone/iPad compatible version click here

For days in advance, my mother would prep for the New Year’s feast and the annual open house, where family, friends and neighbors came to call to enjoy traditional New Year foods like sushi and nishime (a kind of casserole of meat and veggies seasoned with a soy-sauce based sauce).

Through the years, I’ve kept the culinary tradition, even when we lived in an apartment in New York City. More recently, I’ve tried to streamline the menus to make life easier and now that my boys are grown, we just divvy up the recipes, and everybody cooks one or two dishes.  In our large kitchen, four of us can work at the same time, so we can enjoy each other’s company as we cook together.

Here’s a mochi-like recipe that’s perfect for the New Year, made with rice flour so you don’t have to pound rice to make it. It’s a popular dessert in the Islands and there are many versions of this simple recipe.  You will need rice flour and potato starch, both available in Asian supermarkets.

Chichi Dango

1 box (1 pound) mochiko (rice flour) *
2 to 2 ½  cups sugar (depending how sweet you want the result to be)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 can (12 ounces) coconut milk
1 ¾ cups water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Red food coloring
Katakuriko (potato starch) for dusting or cornstarch *

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- X 13-inch baking pan. In a large bowl, stir together mochiko, sugar and baking powder.  In a separate bowl, whisk together coconut milk, water and vanilla.  Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing well.

Scoop out half the mixture (slightly under 3 cups).  Add 2 to 3 drops food coloring to tint the mixture pink.  Pour pink mixture into prepared pan.  Cover tightly with foil and bake 20 minutes.  Pour remaining mixture over the colored layer.  Cover and bake 30 minutes more or until set.

Remove foil and cool completely.  Cut into rectangles using a plastic knife or lightly oiled chef’s knife. Roll each piece in potato starch or cornstarch and dust off excess.

Makes about 48 bite-size pieces.

Note: Be sure the Chichi Dango is completely cool (preferably overnight) before cutting or it will not cut cleanly. Chichi Dango should be eaten fresh. Store leftovers in an airtight plastic container or under plastic wrap. After a day or two, it will begin to harden. You can microwave leftovers, a few pieces at a time, to soften.

* Available in Asian supermarkets

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    Easy 30 minute recipes for weekday cooking - Blog - Celebrating the New Year, Japanese Style

Reader Comments (6)

Such great memories of the Island traditions. Family gatherings, mochi making, feasting and the firecrackers! I can just taste that yummy chichi dango!
Happy New Year!


January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLori Okano

Thanks for your comments, Lori. Those were fun times when we were kids. Your mom was one of the ones calling us at midnight or we were calling her. All the aunties were up till late, making their own New Year food preparations.

January 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandy Hu

Great memories for me too. I still remember the day I was permitted to actual pound of the rice into paste. It was a coming of age, Japanese style, I guess.

I am going to make this for one of the "Coffee Shop Girls". Her birthday is next week and is expecting me to cook up a Hawaiian dessert recipe for her.

Now I just need a gag gift. ha ha
Free coffee........ here I come!

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKamaka

Isn't this great? We haven't met, except as Twitter friends, yet we share a common food experience. Hope you make Chichi Dango for the birthday. Wish I had an idea for a gag gift!

Sandy Hu Co-Founder VP Content & Communications

Special Fork 380 Roosevelt Way San Francisco, CA 94114 415.626.1765 Twitter: @specialforksndy

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandy Hu


February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanie Takashiba Oshiro

Thanks for checking us out. I have never made mochi in the microwave. How do you do it?

February 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandy Hu

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