New Year’s Mochi

“Without ozoni, I don’t feel the New Year has come.”
Image by Lucky Peach

In my grandma’s life, the only New Year breakfasts without ozoni — the celebratory soup eaten across Japan — were forced by World War II. In those days, rice — pounded into mochi cakes, the dish’s essential component — was virtually nonexistent. On those New Years, my grandma made do with a meager faux-zoni, nothing but salted water and boiled potato.

Apart from those years, Obaachan (grandma) has eaten the same ozoni on the first of the year her entire life. “Without ozoni, I don’t feel the New Year has come,” she tells me. The sentiment is universal. Across Japan, and in Japanese households around the world, the first meal of 2016 will be ozoni, which symbolizes sustenance, prosperity, health, and luck. As for me, the daughter of a Japanese father and an American mother, I can’t imagine a New Year’s Day without ozoni either.

Image by Lucky Peach

But here the collective experience splits. In the east, mochi is rolled flat and cut into rectangles, and the broth is clear. In the west, near Kyoto, mochi forms flat, round cakes that bob in a snowy miso soup. There are hundreds of local and regional styles. In Hokkaido, you might find salmon, crab, or both, while in Tokyo it’s usually a few tender pieces of boiled chicken. Add the fact that each household has its own personality — some reserved, others exuberant — and the universal bowl bursts into a constellation.

In my house, the simple pot of dashi and vegetables simmers on the stove while Dad leans over the cast-iron, coaxing the mochi to a golden brown. I am small standing beside him, mimicking his concentration, anticipating the mochi’s first signs of movement. When toasted, mochi balloons like a Peep in the microwave — first one bulge, then another, alive!

Image by Lucky Peach

Every year, we made the trek to the Japanese supermarket in Edgewater, New Jersey, so Dad could recreate Obaachan’s ozoni for us. As a mixed-race kid, I loved the ritual’s clarity. Unlike my muddled feelings around Christmas — we weren’t Christian, so why the tree? — the New Year’s meal, with its special textures and fragrances, grounded me in myself, in my family. Our meal and Obaachan’s, though distant, were alike.

Like Dad, Obaachan inherited her ozoni from her mother. She learned to make dashi with shaved bonito and kombu, to boil vegetables (sweet carrot, velvety sato-imo, gently metallic daikon) the night before, and to simmer the mochi in the broth. The mochi dissolved a little, giving the soup a milky appearance. To serve, she topped the bowl with more shaved bonito and a handful of fresh mizuna, the peppery Japanese green.

But Obaachan’s ozoni was deeply flawed in Dad’s eyes. He hated what she did with the mochi, simmering it, to his mind, into oblivion. When, in the eighties, he moved to New Jersey, he set things straight, toasting the mochi and adding it to the bowls at the last moment. His method preserves the clarity of the broth and infuses it with a whiff of rice cracker.

Image by Lucky Peach

Liberated from his mother’s mochi, Dad riffed some more. His broth is also built on dashi and soy sauce, but the subtle umami is boosted by shiitake, balanced by the snap of mirin and rice vinegar (just a touch, he says). Along with carrot, daikon, sato-imo, mizuna, and shaved bonito, Dad adds crescents of napa cabbage. Sometimes the pink-rimmed fish cake called kamaboko, which Obaachan would only ever eat on the side, finds its way into the bowl.

Ozoni, you see, is family, and family is complex.

For further proof, I only needed to sit at the table of my half-Japanese boyfriend’s family, which gathers in Honolulu each year for a very different ozoni. His Grandma Miyeko is a second-generation Japanese American who learned her cloudy chicken ozoni from her mother-in-law. It is flush with chopped daikon, fresh mizuna, and sweet kuromame (black soybeans), which lend her ozoni a robust, lusty flavor. The mystery is that Miyeko’s mother-in-law came to Hawaii from Hiroshima, a port city, where ozoni is based around seafood. But from where — or whom — did Miyeko’s mother-in-law get chicken?

No matter. For my boyfriend’s family, this is the ozoni. As Miyeko grew older, she taught her grandchildren to make it, and for the past few years she mostly oversees the cooking. In the meantime, two great-granddaughters have arrived, rattling the house. The future is here. Who knows what sparkling translations will some day simmer in their kitchens.

Here are two recipes, one for “Obaachan’s” (Dad’s) ozoni, and one for Grandma Miyeko’s. They couldn’t be more dissimilar, nor more genuine. In the spirit of true ozoni, I hope you feel welcome to make your own changes. One last thing: Before my Obaachan eats her ozoni, she always raises a cup of sake to the New Year — one custom, at least, with which Dad had no qualm. I remember being quite small and clicking a wooden sake cup with a cry of “Kampai!” I suggest you do the same, whichever ozoni you choose. It’s one of those times when Grandma knows best.

This piece was originally published in December 2015 in Lucky Peach.