Black beans glistening with gold leaf; pink fish cake stuffed with a ruffly green shiso leaf and cream cheese; little cakes shaped like persimmons and peonies--these and other Japanese delicacies as exquisite as gems spilling from a treasure chest will cover the table at Grace Masuda’s home Saturday in the Naples area of Long Beach.
Masuda, a third-generation Japanese-American (sansei), works for days fashioning hundreds of dainty tidbits for her annual New Year’s party. She cuts carrots into tiny koi fish for the New Year’s soup. She strings sweetened black beans on pine needles for a ritual dish that symbolizes health and well-being and ties little bundles of food with seaweed or green onion strands. Then she carves turnips into feathery chrysanthemums, and fills the holes in slices of lotus root with tiny orange fish roe.
While most Japanese observe the new year Jan. 1, for the last seven years, Masuda has celebrated the following weekend.
“Since many of my friends were single and had other family obligations on New Year’s Day, I’ve always had my gatherings the Saturday following New Year’s,” she says. “I ask each of my friends to bring a Japanese dish, and I usually make about 15 dishes, which are often new Japanese recipes translated for me.”
Masuda’s interest in cooking is fueled by years of work in hotel catering. Most recently she assisted Christian Rassinoux, executive chef of the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, with administrative duties, event coordination and management of the kitchen staff. Now retired, she has even more time to orchestrate elaborate events such as the New Year’s party, which she starts planning a month in advance.
Some of the ornamental, bite-sized foods will be artfully arranged in a set of three lacquer boxes called ojubako. Tradition allots one box to foods that represent the sea, another to foods from the fields, the third to foods that represent the mountains.
Mochi (soft rice cakes made from glutinous rice) are essential to the celebration. They symbolize strength, health, wealth, good fortune and good harvest, Masuda says. Broiled mochi go into the soup, ozoni, which is the first dish tasted as the New Year arrives. Broiling makes the outside of the mochi crisp and the inner part meltingly tender.
Stacked mochi, real or simulated, decorate Japanese homes for New Year. The large mochi on the bottom represents the older generation and a strong foundation. The small mochi on top represents the new generation. Kombu (kelp) placed between is for happiness, and the tangerine that crowns the arrangement represents happiness and prosperity bestowed by one generation on the next.
Born in Los Angeles, Masuda inherited New Year’s traditions from her parents. They annually pounded out 100 pounds of mochi, which they gave to friends. When Masuda first went to Japan, she was surprised to learn that most women there don’t cook New Year’s dishes. They buy them ready-made. “It does take a lot of work,” she admits.
Those who do cook start a week before the holiday. “All the food has to be made in advance,” Masuda says. During the holiday, the women usually don’t cook for three days. “They have friends drop by, and they go visit friends. For the Japanese, New Year’s is more of a time to be with the family, to be with close friends.”
New Year’s requires not only special food but a fresh start. “It is traditional that the Japanese start the new year with their house all cleaned, their bills all paid. In Japan, the utility people would come to the door so you could pay your bills.” Masuda remembers that from the time she lived in Japan, years ago.
Raised in Fresno--the family moved there after being interned during World War II--Masuda recalls how she and her three sisters were required to scrub the walls of the family home. “I remember most of my New Year’s Eves were spent helping my mother to cook. My parents would have 60 people come, and we had 15 in the family, so we had to have plenty of food.”
This year, Masuda has invited about 25 friends in addition to family members. “The evening begins with a smooth ‘Golden Sake’ toast and cheer, followed with the traditional New Year’s soup. We then eat like there’s no tomorrow,” she says.
Straight sake is not popular with her friends so her husband, Ray Imatani, a surgeon, blends it with Grand Marnier, one teaspoon to a jigger of the rice wine.
Their home is a blend of East and West. A vintage wedding kimono hangs on the wall in the living room. A collection of chopsticks lies on a golden tray on the chest that serves as a coffee table. Japanese tea pots, wooden molds, fans and other objects stand in niches in the wall. A screen that once belonged to Masuda’s mother forms the backdrop for a striking, simple flower arrangement--Masuda is a student of Japanese floral design, ikebana.
A golden screen, ornamented with kimono fabric, decorates the wall in the dining room, just beyond the open kitchen.
Certain foods are mandatory for the new year, but each holiday Masuda adds a few nontraditional dishes. Contemporary innovations include shrimp coated with broken somen noodles and wrapped with a band of nori (dried seaweed), beef rolls that show a checkerboard design of julienned carrot and daikon at the edges and daikon slices folded over crab meat and tied with a strand of green onion. Except for the soup, the food is served cold, or at room temperature.
When she revisits Japan, Masuda brings back kitchen equipment such as bowls, cutters, even gold- and silver-flecked rice paper on which to place dainty cakes. The gold leaf that she will sprinkle over the black beans on pine needles comes from Kyoto. The gold, obviously, stands for wealth. The pine needles represent longevity and seasonal regeneration, she says. Only three beans are placed on each needle. Four is considered an unlucky number.
Masuda gets the pine needles from the backyard of her daughter, Lisa Okamoto, who lives in Aliso Viejo. If they are not stiff enough to penetrate the cooked beans, she guides them through with a metal needle.
The New Year’s party is not an isolated event. “My husband and I entertain a lot,” she says. Masuda records each dinner party, adding comments on the food and revisions. “I have thousands of recipes in my computer,” she says.
Not only does she cook for the new year, but she designs the invitations, organizes entertaining activities and arranges a group photo that will be sent to each guest.
The Japanese word for the new year celebration is oshogatsu, and the conventional greeting is, “Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu.” People sometimes shorten this to “akemashite,” Masuda says: “The rest is courtesy.”