NIPPONIA
NIPPONIA No.23 December 15, 2002
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Bon Appetit!

Japanese Culture in the Kitchen

Zoni

A New Year's Soup for the Whole Family

Written by Kishi Asako, culinary critic
Photos by Kono Toshihiko

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Lower left: Rectangular mochi rice cake and other ingredients in a clear soup, a recipe from eastern Japan. Right: White miso soup from western Japan, with round mochi in the center.
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Zoni soup contains ingredients like chicken, fish and vegetable, plus mochi (rice cake). Zoni is sure to be eaten during New Year festivities in Japan. This culinary tradition apparently began around the mid-1400s, when mochi offered to the gods and Buddha on New Year's Eve (Omisoka, now December 31), was eaten in a soup with other ingredients on the morning of New Year's Day (Gantan, now January 1). The tradition is an important part of life in Japan.
The word zoni is written as two characters: zo means "this and that," and ni means "boiled." So zoni literally means "various ingredients boiled together." Each region has its own recipe, but in every case, the ingredients have high nutritional content and are easy to digest.
Almost all recipes in eastern Japan use rectangular pieces of mochi grilled until they are lightly browned. Most recipes include a leafy vegetable such as komatsuna, chicken, and kamaboko (fish paste cake). The soup is generally clear, and is flavored with soy sauce and salt.
In western Japan, small round pieces of mochi are cooked by boiling, then they are placed in the soup bowls and the soup is poured on top. The ingredients are generally greens, chicken, and large peeled taro that are served whole or cut into round slices. In Kyoto, Osaka and surrounding areas, the soup generally has a white miso base, but further west, the soup is usually clear.
In many parts of Japan there are also people who do not use chicken, but rather a fish product like salted yellowtail or salmon roe. Some people use round mochi containing a sweet red bean paste inside.
The seasoning and ingredients differ by region; so interestingly, if you know what kind of zoni someone ate as a child, you can generally figure out what part of Japan they are from. The New Year is an important time for the family to get together and wish each other health and good fortune during the coming year. So it is not surprising that each region, indeed each family, is quite particular about what ingredients are used to make the New Year soup, zoni.
In some parts of the country, the mochi and other ingredients are simmered all together. But I prefer to cook them separately, because otherwise the bitter taste of the vegetables blends with the stock, and the meat or fish leaves a distinctive odor in the soup. If you use chicken, slice it thin, sprinkle lightly with potato starch, and then dip in boiling water for a moment. This will keep the taste inside and make the soup clear.
At New Year's, we often use red and white kamaboko, since these colors contribute to the festive mood. Some people leave the thin roots on the komatsuna, to signify the wish for many descendants (the family has its roots in the earth). After preparing the ingredients separately, you can store them in a sealed container in the refrigerator, and then you are ready to make the zoni whenever you want.
In some parts of the Tohoku region (northern Honshu), it is common to make a soup called noppei-jiru, and to set it aside for making the zoni later. Ingredients boiled in the soup may include finely chopped pieces of carrot, gobo (burdock), daikon radish, konnyaku (devil's tongue), taro, shiitake mushrooms and chicken. When it is almost time to eat, the mochi are placed in the soup and everything is then simmered together. NIPONIA
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These bowls of zoni were prepared by Koyama Hirohisa, the owner of a first-class Japanese restaurant called Aoyagi. One of Japanís top chefs, he founded the Heisei Academy of Cuisine. Koyama is also active in the international culinary scene, giving lessons in Japanese cooking at top hotels in a number of countries, and at a prestigious school for French cuisine in Paris.
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