What is zoni?
A food culture that cannot be separated from New Year’s Day for Japanese people
Zoni is a traditional food with soup that includes mochi and several other ingredients. It is a traditional Japanese dish eaten on New Year’s Day in each household in order to pray for the safety of the family for the entire year. Along with such traditional dishes such as osechi ryori (special dishes for New Year) and otoso (New Year’s sake), zoni is an essential on New Year’s Day.
There are several variations of mochi, ingredients and soup when making zoni, depending on the region and the household. For example, there are circular mochi and rectangular mochi. Generally speaking, western Japan has a custom of eating circular mochi, while rectangular mochi are eaten in eastern Japan. Furthermore, there are different preparation methods to mochi as well, such as cooking it or stewing it raw.
Moreover, there are differences in soups. While miso (a Japanese seasoning made by fermenting grain) is used in western Japan, eastern Japan tends to use sumashi-jiru (clear soup; made by adding soy sauce and salt to a dashi soup stock). Ingredients used vary greatly, and can include chicken, pork, fish, vegetables and mountain vegetables. Zoni is made by combining these different ingredients. Thus, the same zoni cannot be found in a different household. Therefore, each zoni in turn becomes the “flavor of the household”, unique to that household.
Although it was a dish that was only eaten at home on New Year’s Day, which meant that travelers from overseas would rarely see it, there are now restaurants that have zoni as part of their standard menus in the hope of foreigners eating it and learning about Japanese food culture.
It initially originated as a food for samurai.
The roots of zoni can be traced back to the Muromachi era (1336-1573). It is said that its origin was being served as an appetizer for honzen ryori (a traditional Japanese full-course haute cuisine that is no longer eaten) served at a ritualistic banquet in samurai societies. It is believed that since it was a dish that was believed to give good luck when eaten first at a banquet, it came to be eaten on New Year's Day, the first day of the year. Currently, it has become a tradition to use wakamizu (literally means “young water”. Also goes by the name “hatsumizu” and “fukumizu”), water drawn for the first time on the New Year’s Day. It is said that one can drive away the evil spirits for the year by drinking this water.
Although they are simple, techniques used in preparing zoni are profound
Given that zoni is entrenched as the taste of the household, it is a dish that generally is perceived to not require any special techniques. However, those provided in Japanese restaurants utilize subtle techniques, such as the manners in obtaining the dashi soup stock and in preparing the ingredients.
Differences in regional cultures are deeply reflected in each household.
The differences in zoni are frequently used as an example that indicates the differences in the eating habits of different Japanese regions. If you go visit different regions, you will definitely encounter different types of zoni. This section will describe different types of zoni.
Kyoto-style zoni adds ingredients such as uncooked circular mochi, Japanese red Kintoki carrot and mother tuber in a light-brown miso soup (Kyoto prefecture).
With plenty of ingredients added
1. Hakata zoni
Several ingredients, such as Japanese amberjack, katsuona leaves, carrots, taro and boiled fish paste are added. It is a luxurious zoni (Hakata refers to the regions around Hakata-ward, Fukuoka, which is the central region of Fukuoka prefecture). Furthermore, the tradition of using a set of special chopsticks called Kurihaibashi, made by shaving the branches of chestnut (kuri) trees to eat zoni still remains s in the Hakata region.
2. Sendai zoni
Zoni prepared by using plenty of seafood such as goby, salmon roe, and mountain vegetables, such as daikon radish, carrots and burdock (Sendai is a region around Sendai City, Miyagi prefecture, located in the center of the Tohoku region).
1. Kaga zoni
A simple zoni eaten without any other ingredients except maru mochi (mochi shaped into a circle; Kaga refers to a region that used to be the former Kaga domain, located next to what is currently Ishikawa prefecture).
2. Aichi zoni
A zoni prepared by adding rectangular mochi and mochina vegetables into sumashi-jiru (made with soy sauce and dried bonito shavings), then simmered for a couple of minutes before serving. Topped with dried bonito shavings (Aichi prefecture).
1. Anmochi zoni
Anmochi zoni is prepared by adding circular anmochi (mochi with azuki beans stewed with sugar in the inside) in a light-brown miso soup (Kagawa prefecture).
2. Kinako zoni
Eaten by adding mochi with kinako (soybean powder) and sugar (Nara prefecture).
3. Azuki zoni
Prepared by putting circular mochi in a soup containing azuki beans stewed with sugar (Tottori prefecture).