A transplanted Japanese tradition takes root in East Hampton.
In the days before the New Year, Hiroyuki Hamada will cross the LIE, sometimes more than once, to procure obscure food ingredients from specialty shops in Port Washington and Roslyn, and even New Jersey (there are usually a few ingredients he can’t find on the Island).
He will annex a section of his home for boxes of potatoes, lotus root, greens and Asian pears, not to mention a rainbow of crunchy, salty snacks, including rice crackers, dried fish and fish bones, and dried scallops and shrimps. (“I’m trying out different types of finger-snacking things.”) He will slot plates of plastic-wrap-swaddled miso-marinating salmon, blackfish and scallops into every spare inch of his refrigerator. He will steam spinach and arugula and then bundle the greens destined for sushi rolls in paper towels to squeeze out excess water. He will go through a few cups of high-temperature safflower oil, as well as masago arare (rice cracker bits), which he uses for batter and buys at Stuart’s Seafood, where he also buys his fish and shellfish. He will grate small mountains of ginger.
In the days before the New Year, and even until a few hours before the ball drops, he will make many broths—iterations of dashi, that simple, rich mixture of fish flakes and kombu (kelp), whose horizons are broadened by judicious use of mirin, agave or honey, soy sauce, and rice wine. These broths are building blocks. He makes pots and pots full on his five-burner stove and metes them out little by little: using certain broths to simmer his vegetables and others to baste his fried pork and chicken thighs. Every once in a while, he will dip a small bowl or box into a simmering pot and scoop out a sample.
“Oh, that’s pretty good,” he says, monotone. He considers the possibilities, and then decides to transfer several scoops from a pot where he has been simmering dried mushrooms into the pot that holds the base for his ozoni, a soup made with bits of chicken, vegetables and fish cakes, and topped with mochi. “I want to have a little bit of shiitake flavor in this dish,” he says and tastes. “Umm. It’s pretty good.”
“Tomorrow, I’m planning to do nishime [boiled vegetables], datemaki [a fish and egg dish], kamaboko [brightly colored fish cakes], pork tsukeyaki [pork with sweet soy sauce and ginger], chicken tsukeyaki [the same thing but with chicken],” Hamada tells me on December 30, 2008, nearly one year ago. He will also make sweet black beans, pickled vegetables, a mix of sweet potato and chestnuts that is reminiscent of Thanksgiving, sautéed mushrooms, and any number of wild-card dishes inspired by leftover ingredients or the serendipity of what he finds at the grocer. “Hopefully Stuart’s Seafood will have monkfish liver,” he says, anticipating the simple preparation of pressing the flavorful livers into tight rolls before steaming them.
This pre-year-turning accumulation of food is part of a Japanese tradition that Hamada and his wife, writer Evan Harris, celebrate each year with their two young sons and as many family and friends as can fit comfortably into their home. The tradition dates to the eighth-century Heian Period, a Japanese adaptation of a Chinese ritual that became one of the five seasonal festivals of the imperial court of Kyoto.
“Basically, you make these foods before the New Year and put them into nice boxes. And then you have it easy for three or four days,” Hamada explains as he skins satioma, a dark, round hairy yam that becomes slick and light-colored when peeled, which he will later boil in stock. “In Japan, people take a break for three days after the New Year.” That’s longer than the typical American family subsists on Thanksgiving leftovers, adds Hamada, who moved to the United States from Japan in 1987, and has been living in East Hampton since 1999.
But in contrast to the smaller affairs of families in Japan, Hamada’s efforts will feed many more than his clan. “It’s a good start for the year,” Hamada adds. “And I don’t drink, so I don’t have to get plastered at the end of the year.” He notes that many of the filling foods on the menu—the fried pork, the mochi soup— taste better with a little hangover. And the generosity resonates particularly well with friends who, regardless of their night before, don’t usually have plans on January 1.
It would be easy to compare this endeavor to Hamada’s sculpture, which simultaneously looks natural (dug-from-the-earth or fallen- from-the-sky) and intensely manufactured (the combinations of enamel, plaster, tar, wax, wood and burlap often take years to make). These foods are simple and clean, but also fussed over and elaborate.
“He always digs deep,” says Hiroyuki’s sister, Kyoko Hamada. “It’s just part of his personality. He thinks about how to make kombumaki really right. Even people in Japan don’t do this.” Kyoko, a photographer in Brooklyn, has just returned from a stay in a treehouse in Costa Rica. She slept late and is now being put to work, first chopping burdock and now tying tiny gourd bows around kombumaki—smelt stuffed with eggs wrapped in seaweed and then boiled in stock. Hamada’s 4-year-old son, Cosmo, sits next to his aunt, tying bows around slivers of meat. “I’m happy doing this with my brother,” Kyoko continues. “And with his family. For someone away from their home country for a long time, participating in this tradition means more to me.”
Since he didn’t grow up making these foods, and since modernday Japanese often buy these foods prepackaged at grocers and even 7-Elevens, Hamada has cobbled together his own rules from Internet research, books gleaned from his parents’ home and a 1990’s magazine “for young people trying to be better housewives.” He also keeps journals with collages of shopping receipts, images of dishes, home-written recipes and ingredient quantities.
“The first couple of years we noticed we didn’t have enough green stuff,” says Hamada. “So we decided to do spinach and broccoli and more green stuff. And last year we added the rice dish. Rice dishes traditionally are made for happy occasions. Besides the stuff that is specified, I’m not really picky about details, I guess. Basically any foods that can be made and enjoyed and look good a few days later.” There’s an annual debate over the aesthetic costs and benefits of using artificial food coloring to mimic the “beautiful, happy pink color” of prepackaged, store-bought fish cakes. (One year, Hamada tried to tint the cakes with radish shavings.)
The once-a-year ingestible installation becomes a sort of cooking calisthenics, a race in which Hamada practices most preparations in his repertoire. He fries chicken thighs to a golden crust: “You just fry the sides and then you kind of steam it. You bake it on a pan at the end with sauce. You kind of caramelize the sauce at the end.” He slices up New York skirt steak, tosses the pieces into a wok with hot oil. A pour of soy sauce, a few more tosses, a shot of mirin, a few more tosses. He removes the steak and adds julienned burdock and carrot, stirs, and then he adds back the beef.
Food does interest Hamada. He tends an ever-changing garden, compost pile and network of deer-deterring structures just outside his home, which is a short walk from his solar-powered art studio. He has recently started sprouting—aided by the Easy Sprout Sprouter from Sproutamo. “It’s pretty easy and very tasty. You basically soak the seeds overnight and keep rinsing them a couple of times a day for a few days. It takes longer in colder weather but still it’s great.” He is particularly fond of the alfalfa-clover-radish-broccoli seed mixture.
Naturally, how the foods are presented on New Year’s Day is also part of the tradition, a part that falls mostly on the shoulders of Hamada’s wife, Harris. “It is my way of helping, since I can’t really help with the actual cooking,” says the author, and contributor to Edible East End, who sometimes writes on her fears of cooking. “So the arranging is something I can do. I have confidence in my arranging abilities. Plus, specific foods are supposed to be placed in specific layers of the boxes, so there are firm, comforting guidelines.”
And for the past few years, Kyoko has come out to help, sometimes bringing friends. “She is an amazing, very talented, natural arranger, so we work together,” says Harris. “It is much faster and better with more beautiful results now that she has been coming to help.”
By the time everything is ready to be put in the boxes—with stacks of backup boxes to take the place of the empties—it’s late on New Year’s Eve, Harris adds, and her husband is “exhausted from three days of cooking. So really at that point I have to step in for humanitarian reasons.” (“Evan is very good at arranging,” Hamada says.)
After they have put out the boxes—kaleidoscopes of fish cakes and spinach rolls, fallen dominoes of meat and sliced fish—and put their house back in order, Hamada prepares one last dish— toshi-koshi soba, which means “year-crossing soba,” and the blearyeyed cooks slurp in the New Year.
But there is still one day of cooking to go. And, as more countertops, shelves and sections of floor fill up with food, Hamada wonders if there is time to get some fish for sashimi. Taking a last minute inventory of the pantry, he finds several bags of green beans that he was planning to cook. He has misplaced ingredients before and not unearthed them until the New Year. It’s a happy moment, he says, like finding a forgotten present under the Christmas tree.