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Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
Delicious dishes that are fit for a princess
Thank heaven for little girls, with a colorful spread for Hina Matsuri
By MAKIKO ITOH
Special to The Japan Times
March 3 is Hina Matsuri, also known as Girls' Festival or Momo no Sekku (Peach Day). This day was a traditional seasonal and religious event on the lunar calendar, during the period when peach blossoms were in bloom — around early April on the Gregorian calendar. (Japan has followed the Gregorian calendar since the late 19th century, so peaches are no longer in bloom during Hina Matsuri, but they are still symbolic of the festival.)
During the latter half of the Edo Period (1603-1868), Momo no Sekku evolved into the festival it is now: a day to celebrate women and to wish for their health and happiness. While it's not an official national holiday, it's observed widely in Japan, especially by families that have young daughters.
The centerpiece of Hina Matsuri is the ohina-sama or hina (princess) doll display, depicting the wedding procession of an imperial princess of the Heian Period (794-1185). An ohina-sama set can include just the prince and princess, or swell to include their full entourage. Marriage may not be considered the ultimate road to happiness for a Japanese girl that it used to be, but hina doll sets are still treasured by little girls and their mothers.
Another important item, usually displayed with the hina dolls, is a layered mochi (pounded-rice cake) called hishi-mochi. Related to the kagami-mochi that's displayed at New Year's, the bottom green layer signifies spring and new life, the white long life and fertility, and the peach-pink or red is for health and to ward off bad karma. In some regions there's an additional yellow layer, which refers to the yellow flowers of the nanohana plant, a vegetable related to broccoli that is a major harbinger of spring. The diamond shape of the hishi-mochi is considered lucky too.
Traditional Hina Matsuri dishes adhere to the same green, white, peach-pink and yellow color palette. Their dainty presentation originates from the refined foods of which ladies of the imperial court partook — or, at least, what the wives and daughters of the samurai class in the Edo Period thought they did.
Hina arare is a rice snack treat dyed white, pink, green and yellow. What hina arare means differs according to where you are though: In the Tokyo-Kanto area hina arare refers to a colored and sugared puffed rice, made popular by an old Edo confectionery in the 19th century; but in in the Kyoto-Kansai area, hina arare is a sweet and savory rice-cracker mix.
In recent years, ichigo daifuku — fresh strawberries wrapped in sweet adzuki bean paste and mochi — have gained popularity as a Hina Matsuri treat too, probably because of their festive and "lucky" red and white coloring, the use of sweet-sour, springlike strawberries (which in Japan are in season mainly from late January to March), and their dainty appearance.
Not all Hina Matsuri foods are sugary though. Ushiojiru is a clear, fragrant soup made from hamaguri clams, which are also in season at this time of year. This soup has a wonderful sea-salty taste, which counteracts all the sweetness of the spread perfectly. The shells symbolize a joined pair, signifying the wish for a happy marriage union.
While sushi is eaten year round, it is still considered a spring-appropriate food, so sushi in various forms is often served as part of a Hina Matsuri feast. One typically dish is hamaguri-zushi, small balls of sushi rice wrapped in thin omelet (usuyaki tamago) and made to resemble hamaguri clams.
Pink, yellow and green fat sushi rolls are also popular. However, I recommend a much simpler version — chirashi-zushi, or "scattered" sushi, a bed of sushi rice with various colorful toppings. It's scalable according to the number of people you're serving, and the final assembly is very quick. The recipe on this page features the all-important Hina Matsuri color palette of green, white, peach-pink and yellow.
The traditional drink of Hina Matsuri is ama-zake, a sweet, thick, beige beverage somewhat akin to eggnog. It's usually made from kome koji, the fermented rice used to make sake. Since it's only fermented for a day, the sugar does not turn into alcohol, so it's safe for kids to drink — although whether they will like its distinct, old-fashioned taste and texture is another question entirely!
If you have young daughters, Hina Matsuri is a wonderful way for them to experience a time-honored Japanese tradition firsthand. It's also great to have a day just for them. Even if you don't have daughters, why not gather some friends to celebrate the women in your life?
You don't need to have all of the traditional foods listed here, but hina arare and ama-zake can be purchased easily throughout Japan as well as at Japanese grocery stores worldwide. If your kids don't take to these traditional foods, these days it's perfectly acceptable to just buy some pretty cakes from the pastry shop to celebrate the day in an appropriately girlie fashion.
It's important to put up a simple hina doll display to complete the picture. If your budget doesn't stretch to a hand-carved set, you can go for a plastic model or even download printable hina for free on the Internet. As for the hishi-mochi, if a real one is too expensive, you can easily get a plastic version from a ¥100 shop!