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
Tofu, it seems, isn’t just for eating…
Every year on February 8th, various temples and shrines around Japan have a memorial ceremony for worn out and broken sewing needles. People bring their old and broken needles to the temple and place them in a block of tofu or konnyaku. The soft bed is offered as the final resting place for the needles that have worked so hard. The pilgrims who bring their needles are offering their gratitude for the needles’ hard work and also praying to improve their skills in sewing. As well as being an act of gratitude, the pilgrims also pray that all the things that are broken in their lives are laid to rest in a bed of softness – taking away all the sharp pain in their lives.
The gentle soft taste of silken tofu is to be enjoyed perfectly unadorned, as it is. In Kyoto, the best tofu is prepared using the natural spring water that is so delicious in Kyoto. There are a number of famous temple restaurants in Kyoto that serve yudofu 湯豆腐, which is just plain cubes of tofu simmered in spring water, that you eat dipped into a light soy sauce and topped with spring onions and grated ginger. The texture and subtle favour is enjoyed in the meditative surroundings of an ancient garden, so that all of the senses are engaged in the simple act of eating this perfect humble food. It is a sublime culinary experience.
The key to this dish is to use only the highest quality tofu, spring water and konbu.
1 x 15cm piece of konbu
4 cups of spring or filtered water
Silken or regular tofu cut into cubes about 5cm
1 cup dashi
3 Tbsp shoyu
Sliced spring onion
Traditionally, this dish is prepared in a donabe clay pot on a small table burner, but you can use a regular saucepan and then transfer the tofu and water into a warmed casserole pot.
Place the konbu in the water and leave for about 5 hours. Put the saucepan on a low heat until the first bubbles appear, then turn off the heat and pour into a pre-warmed casserole dish with the tofu in it.
Each person takes a piece of tofu and puts it in their bowl, adding the dipping sauce and condiments to their own liking.
This is Genbo Nishikawa’s recipe for tofu & vegetable stuffed mini-pumpkins.
Recipe makes one stuffed pumpkin
Mini-pumpkin about 15cms diameter
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
Small amount of kikurage mushrooms
3 runner beans
Usukuchi shoyu [light soy]
250g firm tofu
Kuzu-an [Ankake] sauce:
1 1/2 cups of water
2 Tbsp konbu dashi [see “dashi” in the glossary page for details]
2 Tbsp usukuchi shoyu [light soy sauce]
(1) Remove the top portion of the pumpkin – to be used as a lid; Scoop out the seeds; Place the pumpkin in salted water for about 30 minutes
(2) Rehydrate the mushrooms in water and cut finely, reserving the soaking liquid for stock; Cut the carrots into sliced quarters [called icho in Japanese – see glossary for a video on how to slice “icho”]; Slice the gobo down the length into two halves, then thinly slice into “half moon” shapes; Slice the beans into 1cm pieces
(3) Take the ingredients in (2) and put them in the shoyu and chill in the refrigerator; Place the tofu in a muslin cloth or paper towel and allow to drain, then wring lightly to remove the water; Mix the tofu with the chilled ingredients
(4) Boil the pumpkin in the water for about 15 minutes; Stuff the pumpkin with the tofu and vegetables; Put on the pumpkin ‘lid’ and boil for a further 10 minutes
(5) Put the ingredients for the kuzu-an in a saucepan and heat to a gentle simmer, stirring constantly until it thickens
(6) Pour some of the warm kuzu-an sauce into the base of a bowl and then place the pumpkin on top.
Source: 禅寺のおばんざい四季の膳 by Genbo Nishikawa