Seasonal spotlight: Setsubun
February 3 is Setsubun, which marks the division between winter and spring according to the lunar calendar. These days Japanese people celebrate Setsubun by tossing roasted soybeans around their home to purify the interior, which may or may not involve dressing someone up in a demon mask and pelting them with beans. This year I decided that I wanted to avoid finding dried soybeans hanging out in corners of my apartment for the next month, so we bought a bag of individual packages to toss around instead. We also received a free paper demon mask helpfully reminding us that we only have until July to prepare for the switch to digital broadcast, which in our case is unfortunately going to involve buying a new TV in the next few months. (I really hate being forced to spend money by outside forces, but it also seems stupid to buy an adapter for our ancient television…so conflicted!)
Setsubun is also the one day of the year that people eat something called ehōmaki, a type of rolled sushi. “Ehō” refers to the direction that is considered most auspicious for the current year according to Onmyōdō, which is a Japanese divination practice influenced by Chinese ying-yang divination and the Chinese zodiac (the ehō for 2011 is south-southeast). It’s really complicated and I don’t understand it very well, but suffice it to say that this system of beliefs is based on the concept that certain directions are lucky at certain times. In literature from the Heian period the nobles were always using this as an excuse to visit the home of some lady they were trying to get close to by showing up and saying “Excuse me, I’m headed in an unlucky direction. Can you put us up for the night?”
(And speaking of Onmyōdō and the Heian period, if you haven’t seen Onmyoji you really should!)
Unlike other types of sushi rolls, ehōmaki are not cut into bite-sized pieces before they are eaten. Instead, you are supposed to stand facing this year’s lucky direction and eat the entire roll without speaking. This supposedly brings good luck of all sorts. My former boss was really into this sort of custom so each year he bought ehōmaki and we all lined up in the conference room, facing the same direction and silently eating our sushi rolls. This was always vaguely awkward for me because I eat so slowly, but it was an interesting way to take a break from work.
Like so many other foods in modern Japan, people rarely make ehōmaki at home anymore and most people buy theirs either from a specialty shop or convenience store. Since eating convenience store sushi always makes me feel somewhat ill due to the massive amounts of MSG and since it’s been a while since I rolled sushi, I decided this year to try making my own ehōmaki for the first time.
It seems that there are some ingredients which are considered particularly lucky for ehōmaki, but my husband and I decided on a simple combination of cucumber, egg, and braised shiitake mushrooms with kanpyō (dried gourd strips). We had some extra rice left so we also made a roll with some leftover nattō (fermented soybeans) and kimchi. Most ehōmaki also contain sakura denbu, which is made of shredded fish flakes that have been dyed a lurid shade of pink. It’s not my favorite so I left them out.
Here are some links that might be of use if you’re considering making ehōmaki this year. Even if you eat yours sitting at a table, I think that a delicious sushi roll is always a good way to bring a little luck into a gray February day!