While working on a translation about osechi ryôri, the Japanese New Year’s meal, today, I came across a passage about how the meal is prepared in advance of the holidays to avoid using the cooking fire. From a practical standpoint, not having to cook while one’s extended family is visiting gives the primary household cook a chance to relax and spend time with the family. The other reason given is that using the kitchen fire during the year-end period makes Kôjin (荒神) the Fire God angry.
I suspect this folklore came about because someone in the late Heian Period (794-1185 CE), the era when the custom is said to have originated, accidentally burned down the house during the dead of winter and that this misfortune was attributed to Kôjin’s malice. From another standpoint, in a culture where houses were traditionally made of wood and paper, fire has been a constant worry historically. However, despite my best efforts to observe the customs of semi-secularized Shinto and Buddhism, I was not about to let the kitchen flames go out in my apartment at the year’s end.
On New Year’s Day, we started off well, eating muffins and bread I had made days earlier for brunch, but by 3 everyone was a bit peckish from hitting the fukubukuro (福袋), “lucky bag,” sales. Popcorn–the kind you make in a big vat–sounded lovely. I hadn’t made popcorn in a few months, and, in trying to do it from memory, I stupidly set the lid down the pot as I was heating the oil. I threw in a few test kernels, replaced the lid. There was a pop–the lid jumped an inch, revealing orange flames. My friend and I exchanged a panicked glance. I turned the gas off and removed the lid. Sure enough, the pot was full of fire. The lid went immediately back on and the pot went onto the balcony to cool. Apples and cheese it was, then.
For dinner, I made ozôni, which is supposed to be one of the only foods for which a cooking fire can be lit. Ozôni (お雑煮), a soup with a dashi-based broth, is chock full of greens and mochi and is one of the quickest soups to make. I made a pescetarian version with silken tofu as well as a traditional version with chicken. The final touch was the mochi, which I decided to toast in the fish grill of my gas range. When done right, toasted mochi is lighted browned on the outside and gooey on the inside. My version was more like mochi flambé. Yes, the two cakes at the back of the grill actually caught fire. They were easily saved–I just blew out the fire and cut off the burn part. Being alone in the kitchen certainly has its advantages.
After making my first offering at Oyama Jina (尾山神社) on January 2 as part of my real hatsumôde (初詣), I promptly turned a vegan carrot-cake-for-one into a hockey puck (never using the “just microwave it!” option ever again) and produced a too-moist apple-bread experiment in the rice cooker. Clearly I have appeased the god of the kitchen fire but not the god of the oven range just yet. It would probably be in my best interest at this juncture to visit a shrine to pray for the gods of the kitchen appliances to forgive my culinary trespasses this holiday season.
Happy New Year to my readers, and may your relationship with Kôjin-sama improve!