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Stirring New Year’s Pot Is a Stroke of Luck

Times Staff Writer

Good luck if you’ve waited until the last minute to buy the ingredients for your New Year’s Day good-luck soup.

That would be ozoni, the nutritious hot concoction that will be served over sticky rice cakes called mochi in thousands of Japanese American homes Sunday morning in the Los Angeles area.

The soup is made from a rich broth that contains such Japanese staples as kelp, bonito flakes, spinach, daikon radishes, carrots or potatoes along with chicken, fish, duck or shellfish. It’s ladled into a deep bowl over pounded, paste-like rice.

But every family has its own traditional recipe. And finding the right makings can be tricky at specialty grocery stores in Little Tokyo packed with shoppers.

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“I’ve got the carrots, the daikon, the ginger, the leafy greens. But we’re missing the kind of mochi I’m looking for -- the sticky rice,” said Dean Harada as he surveyed his shopping basket Friday at the Marukai Market in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court. “I’ll have to go somewhere else for that.”

Harada, a music composer who lives in the West Adams area, plans to make the soup tonight. It will be a 45-minute job, once he boils the chicken that’s part of the recipe he’s relied on since he was a boy growing up in Hawaii.

A block away, Jane Urata was navigating the busy aisles of the Nijiya Market in the Japanese Village Plaza. Her own customized ozoni ingredient list was committed to memory. “I don’t do it by the book,” she said, rattling off her traditional recipe that includes steamed chicken and mizuna, mustard greens. That’s “for color, not for flavor,” she explained.

“I’ve been making ozoni every New Year’s ever since I took over from my mother,” said Urata, a retired secretary from Hacienda Heights. “I kind of doctored her recipe. I go by taste, not by measuring spoons. I started shopping early because it’s hard to find things.”

Her mother, Michi Urata, approves, she said. “We usually eat it for breakfast on New Year’s morning. But you can have it anytime of the day, actually. It’s not New Year’s without it.”

Over at the produce section, Sak Miyawaki also had mizuna greens in her shopping cart. She said she will be blending the old with the new tonight when she whips up ozoni for a Sunday morning crowd of 25.

She will use an automatic mochi maker for the rice and a packaged dashi mix for the soup base. It saves time, she explained as son Mark and daughter Joanne nodded in agreement.

Ozoni was a big thing for my parents. I’m second generation, and I’m trying to carry on the tradition,” said Miyawaki, of Orange. “When we were growing up we never went out on New Year’s Eve because my mother was always making it. Now I know what she went through.”

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Experts say the tradition of starting the new year by eating ozoni dates from the 15th century in Japan. The name refers to the “mixed simmering” of winter vegetables and a protein source such as chicken or fish.

The soup itself varies by region in Japan. It can be salty in the colder north, have a white broth in the western part of the country and an almost clear one in the east. Some say it has a thick consistency in Tokyo and spoons out thinner in Osaka.

But it’s a tradition that has translated well into Japanese American life, said Hirokazu Kosaka of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.

“For me, coming from Japan and seeing most second and third generations here making it has been interesting,” Kosaka said Friday. “They saw how their grandparents brought the ingredients from Japan to make ozoni. They keep the tradition going. The mochi stretches when you pull it in your hands when you’re preparing it. It symbolizes longevity and prosperity in the new year.”

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And best of all, good luck.

“It worked for me. I’ve had good luck this year,” said Chieko Matsuda, a Los Angeles nurse who dashed into the crowded Marukai Market at noontime Friday. “I already have what I need for my ozoni. I’m just here to buy some orange juice.”

Nana Sadamura, a clinical psychologist and counselor, traveled from Upland to shop at the Nijiya Market. “We try to eat food on New Year’s that brings good luck,” she said--noting that her mother’s ozoni recipe is pork-based.

The market’s assistant floor manager, George Suzuki, was unloading grocery boxes as fast as he could as customers crowded the shop. He said he’s particularly lucky this year on the ozoni front.

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“My girlfriend and my mom are fighting over who’s going to make it. They both want to. They both make it a little different,” said Suzuki, 20, of Hacienda Heights. He added in a whisper: “I like my mom’s the best.”

Back at Marukai Market, Dean Harada attested to the power of the ozoni he ate last New Year’s Day, as he roamed the aisles with wife Leanna and daughter Isabelle, 13.

“It works,” he said. “I had good luck this year. I do music for film and television, and we got a couple of TV shows, ‘Dr. 90210' on E! and ‘Untold Stories of the ER’ on the Learning Channel.”

And 2006 could be another winner, he said. “Ozoni is a clean start to the new year.”

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