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Winter: stay warm inside with some of these cold-weather treats.
A few months ago we looked at the top five Japanese autumn foods, and now that we’re officially well into winter it only seems appropriate to have another Well-Fed Top Five, this time looking at what specialties Japanese people look forward to during the coldest time of year.
That’s why this week we’re counting down the top five Japanese winter foods. Other countries may have pies or eggnog or gingerbread cookies, but Japan has its own winter wonderland of delicacies too.
So let’s get to it! Starting off with…
#5. Sticky like snow: Mochi and zenzai
Ah mochi, the sweet snack made of sticky rice that hospitalizes hundreds of Japanese people every year. As long as you’re careful it can be a tasty treat, but just be careful not to accidentally bite off more than you can chew.
There are several theories as to why mochi is considered a winter food in Japan. One claims that farmers and samurai would eat mochi in winter since it was an easy-to-carry source of dense calories, whereas another claims that mochi was included in boiled soup offerings to Shinto gods around New Year’s, associating them with the holiday.
Whatever the reason, even though mochi can be consumed during any season, there’s one special New Year’s mochi that only comes around once a year: kagami mochi.
▼ Two mochi placed on top of each other with
a Japanese orange on top. It’s like a mochi snowman!
Another popular winter mochi treat is zenzai, possibly one of the strangest sounding yet most delicious things you can eat. It’s a hot soup made from azuki beans (sweet red beans) with a couple of mochi thrown in for good measure.
Again, it may sound bizarre (hot sweet soup???) but it’s basically the Japanese equivalent of a cup of soul-warming hot chocolate. It’s perfect for when you’ve spent a day out in the cold and just want to warm up from the inside out.
▼ Hot, steamy zenzai and its mochi
companions in several different forms.
#4. The convenience store classic: oden
ny signs of winter coming: the first cold breeze, snowflakes falling, nighttime in the afternoon. But in Japan one sign stands above the rest to show that winter has truly arrived – convenience stores selling oden.
Oden is somewhat similar to chicken soup in the West; a hot soup that you can technically eat anytime, but people really get excited about during the cold season. Around the middle of fall and all through winter, convenience stores put out metal containers full of oden ingredients so that you can mix and match exactly what you want in your bowl.
▼ It can be a little intimidating at first, but luckily
we have a guide to oden ingredients and how to order it.
It’s really hard not to like oden, considering there’s basically something for everyone in it, and you can put in and leave out whatever you’d like. Like fish? Be sure to add a nice spongy chikuwa fish-cake tube. Like vegetables? Add in some tender daikon. Like mochi? Add in a mochiiri kinchaku, a mochi wrapped in an inari sushi “pouch.” Like chicken? Add in tsukune, basically chicken meatballs.
And then on top of that there’s eggs, tofu, cabbage, and so much more that can go into it. But no matter what you add, you’re guaranteed to end up with a bowl of warm broth and hearty food to keep you satiated during the cold weather.
#3. Winter fruits: mikan, strawberries, kaki and yuzu
Not all winter foods are hot and steamy. Sometimes you need something cooler in the winter too, and that’s where Japanese winter fruits come in.
The number one fruit most associated with winter is mikan, Japanese mandarins. One of the most popular Japanese winter pastimes is sitting at the kotatsu (heated table with a blanket) and enjoying some mikan with friends and family… or just by yourself because hey, don’t let a lack of friends stop you from getting your kotatsu and mikan on.
#2. Simmering deliciousness: sukiyaki and shabu shabu
What’s better than having a steaming bowl of soup and savory bits to yourself during the winter? Doing all of that, but sharing with friends and family!
Sukiyaki and shabu shabu let you do just that. For those who have never experienced the joy of sharing a simmering bowl before, it’s basically a pot placed in the middle of the table filled with broth, meat, tofu, vegetables, and more that is constantly cooking. Some people place the pot on top of a heating plate, some people use special pots that heat themselves, but it’s all essentially the same idea.
Sukiyaki literally means “things you like cooked,” so you basically just use your chopsticks to put in and pick out whatever you want, optionally dip it in a bowl of raw egg (again, a lot better than it sounds), and then eat.
Shabu shabu (the onomatopoeia for “swishing in a pot”) is essentially the same thing, though the meat is thinner. Shabu shabu meat (often beef) is meant to just get a light cooking in the pot, whereas thicker sukiyaki meat (often pork) can be boiled until fully-cooked.
And the #1 Japanese winter food is…
1. New Year’s feast: osechi ryori
There it is – the big one, the meal that you can really only have on New Year’s or else people will think you’re weird: osechi ryori. It’s a once-a-year feast that consists of, well, pretty much anything you can imagine, and each item has its own symbolic reasons for inclusion.
We’ve talked about the meaning behind pretty much every inclusion in osechi ryori before, but here’s just a few examples:
• Daidai oranges: daidai can also mean “generation after generation,” symbolizing children and health.
• Sea bream: pronounced tai in Japanese which is close to medetai (“auspicious”).
• Herring roe: the many eggs symbolizing many future descendants.
• Ozoni: soup with meat and mochi, which symbolizes long life with its stretchiness.
• Shrimp: the curved bodies supposedly look like the elderly, also symbolizing long life.
And so on and so on. Osechi ryori is the big meal of the year in Japan, kind of like combining Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner in the U.S. into one feast. And even though it’s not as popular as it used to be, it’s still the number one winter meal for Japanese people, considering it’s the only thing on this list that is basically never eaten at any other time of the year. It’d be like having a glass of eggnog in the summer, or a bag of candy corn in spring.
Despite osechi ryori’s detractors though, you have to admit it looks beautiful. And even if you’re not a huge fan of the food itself, there’s Star Wars osechi, Frozen osechi, and even Pokémon osechi to get excited about.
So there you have it, the top five Japanese winter foods. Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to check out the top five strange things Japanese people do for Christmas for some other interesting winter food choices in Japan.
References: HORTI, Hime Kazura
Top image: GAHAG (1, 2) (edited by RocketNews24/japaninside)