That's Happy New Year in Japanese, in case you were wondering. This past decade has been, how should I put it...? The word turbulent comes to mind, both personally and professionally. Let's just say I am happy to put 2009 and the Naughty Aughties behind me. So it was in this spirit of cleansing and renewing that I accepted an invitation to a Japanese New Year's Day dinner.
In contrast to most formal Japanese dinners, this was more free-flowing and relaxed, with far fewer rituals than usual. In fact, aside from when to put the noodles into the broth, there were almost no rules. And on a cold, snowy New Year's Day 2010, this was just what the doctor ordered.
The fresh ingredients, resonating of the season, were laid out in a colorful display that lit up the room with the light of a new year. Various mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, lotus root, lettuce and carrots were both earthy and vivid, both to see and to taste.
Japanese onions and fresh tofu were pleasant counterpoints to each other, each maintaining its own identity yet adding a little bit of themselves to the broth.
The richest part of the meal was some paper-thin slices of well-marbled beef, which cooked through almost instantly once placed in the wok. These remained true to themselves, yet like the vegetables, added a little to the cooking liquid to make a whole that was greater than its parts.
The main part of this meal was the broth itself, which slowly absorbed the flavors of the various ingredients.
Once we were finished with the veggies and meat, the fresh udon noodles were placed in the boiling, flavor-infused broth.
Small bowls with sauce and scallions would greet the noodles once done.
With pure generosity, the richness of the liquid was transferred to the noodles, even as more ingredients were added. In typical Japanese fashion, a single star-shaped carrot was placed in the center while it cooked to offer a bright counterpoint to the earthy colors.
Finally, this long, cleansing meal ended with a single, perfect Japanese orange.
In a bow to the Western sensibilities (and sweet teeth - not mine, I swear I didn't steal the missing one) in the room, French macarons were offered as an addendum to the fruit.
What a way to greet the new year! Instead of the usual NYC brunch that was heavy and leaden, this was a light, cleansing meal. It was a wonderful metaphor for starting anew and with a clean slate, open to all the possibilities the new year could offer.
Thank you for letting me ramble on these past few years, watching as I follow my passion and plunge headfirst into the wine business. Without your support I would never have been able to do this. So it is with utter sincerity that I say:
Akemashite Omedeto! Happy New Year! Bonne Année! Felíz año nuevo!