The Wrath of the Kitchen God

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.

The Wada House heart (irori, 囲炉裏) in Shirakawa-go

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.

Photo copyright Mark Schumacher,

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.

Oyama Jinja, 2 Jan. 2012

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!



5 Comments Add yours

  1. I am so glad you stumbled upon my blog…because I could discover yours! I love Japanese food, I love the country and love the culture. I visited several times, but never had the chance ot live there. I even speak a little, probably like a 2 years old toddler…

    Yu have a new follower!

    1. Leah says:

      Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting! ^^ I’m very curious to know what you think of American Japanese food vs. Italian Japanese food and Japanese food itself. (Not to mention “Italian” in Japan!)

      I did a very brief tour of Italy ten years ago, and although I feel in love with Tuscany, I didn’t get to eat a lot while there. Lots of gelato lunches because of my budget. Someday I would like to go back and eat there properly.

      Hope you enjoy the blog as much as I like yours!

      1. You ask an interesting question indeed: Japanese cuisine used to be my go-to cuisine when I was living in Brussels. There is a big Japanese community in that city. I used to work with many Japanese companies at the time, and they helped me discover a few restaurants where, they claimed, the food was as good as in Japan.

        Moving to Chicago has been a bit of a turn-off from that point of view. The food is indeed amazing, but no good Japanese cuisine to speak of. And talking to local friends, they confirmed. There is a new pub that opened a few months ago, Chizakaya, which held a lot of promises, yet it didn’t deliver.

        You know, I don’t think I ever ate Italian food when I was in Japan…

        PS: I LOVE your blog.

        1. Leah says:

          I find that a lot of the Japanese places in the States (outside of New York City) are American-style sushi (maki/rolls), which I rather like, but there’s not much in the way of noodles, etc. There is an okonomiyaki place called Kenka in New York, but it’s just easier to go to the Asian market and get the flour for okonomiyaki. ;) Interestingly, in Ann Arbor, there are a lot of Japanese people, and there are Asian bakeries, a Japanese bakery, and lots of restaurants that serve udon, soba, a variety of sushi, and even some fusion places. (Considering Ann Arbor is only 1.6 square miles with a population of 110,00, that’s not bad!)

          Italian food in Japan is sort of like Italian in the US, in that there are places were the chefs are very serious about authenticity or fusion, and there are pizza-delivery services with corn and mayo on the pizza. No, seriously.

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