東風解凍 is the first of the 72 micro seasons that divide the year in Japan. It can be read as “tōfū kōri wo toku” or “harukaze kōri wo toku”, and refers to the east wind that blows as the thick winter ice begins to melt.
Season 1, February 4-8, marks the beginning of Spring (risshun 立春), according to the traditional lunisolar almanac. Although the traditional lunisolar calendar was replaced in 1873, when the European Gregorian calendar was adopted in Japan, these 72 micro seasons are still observed in traditional pursuits such as cooking, gardening, poetry, and other aesthetic pursuits. These micro seasons reflect the subtle changes in nature and create an acute awareness of the passing of the year.
The first day of this season is ‘hatsu-uma’ 初午, which means the ‘first horse day’. Rather than seven days a week, the traditional calendar was in cycles of the twelve animals of the zodiac.
It is said that hatsu-uma was first celebrated in 711 to mark the day when the deity Inari Daijin comes down from Mt Inari to give a blessing for a successful rice crop. On this day, rituals for a bountiful rice harvest are held at the Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社 in Kyoto, and people go there at that time to pray for good fortune generally.
There are several traditional dishes associated with this season, but the most popular dish, which is specific to hatsu-uma, rather than the whole of season 1, is inarizushi 稲荷寿司, which is popularly known as oinarisan おいなりさん. Inarizushi became popular in the Edo era because it was the cheapest type of sushi.
Abura-age is said to be the favourite food of the fox messenger of the god of the rice harvest, Inari Daijin 稲荷大神 (also known as Uka-no-Mitama 宇迦之御魂神), so that is how inarizushi got its name. In Kansai they prefer to fold the inarizushi into a triangular ‘mountain’ shape, whereas in Kanto region they made a rectangular ‘pillow’ shape.
Inarizushi is simply seasoned sushi rice mixed with various finely diced vegetables and stuffed into pockets made from abura-age 油揚げ, which is made by deep-frying thin slices of tofu. After frying, the abura-age is simmered in a broth seasoned with sugar and soy sauce to make a sweet-salty taste. Kyoto chef Satoshi Iida recommends that the balance should be more towards sweetness. He suggests adding ingredients such as carrot, gobo, shiitake, lotus root, kanpyo strips, etc., making sure to squeeze out any moisture before mixing into seasoned sushi rice. The ingredients should not be crunchy, so need to be well cooked. For the lotus root, if you soak it in amazake this will not only add a delicious taste but will also soften the root. The gobo should be first shaved and then simmered in a lightly seasoned broth until soft, then mashed. Fill the rice mixture into the tofu pockets, forming them into a triangular or pillow shape and serve with pickled ginger. In cold weather, these inarizushi can also be heated and served hot.
Inarizushi is often served with norimaki rolls in a combination called ‘sukeroku-zushi’ 助六寿司. The name comes from a character named Sukeroku from the eponymous kabuki play, Sukerokuyukari no Edozakura, whose lover is Agemaki 揚巻, a courtesan of Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Her name is “age” 揚 which means “fried” and “maki” 巻 meaning “nori roll”, so these two features were combined to create this set called sukeroku sushi. Sukeroku-zushi is a popular bento found at train stations and convenience stores.
Although the sukeroku-zushi bentos have nori rolls with crab, prawn and eggs, it is of course possible to make your own using any kind of vegetable and pickles.
飯田知史, 京料理 七十二候
Satoshi IIDA, Kyōryōri Shichi-jū-ni Kō [The Seventy-two Seasons of Kyoto Cuisine], 2008