Oct 132016
 

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Today is the beginning of土居太鼓祭り—Doi Taiko Matsuri. Let me break down the Japanese for you (not that I speak Japanese). Doi is a place on Shikoku Island in Japan, Taiko is a traditional Japanese drum, and Matsuri means festival. So, Doi Drum Festival.  It runs for three days from the 13th to the 15th of October annually. Drum festivals in Japan these days are fairly common in a number of locations but they are not all the same.  Some drum festivals are what you might expect – groups of men, or men and women, in special costume drumming out traditional rhythms on sets of specially made drums.  Doi Drum Festival is not one of these, but its form is also common. It involves processions of太鼓隊 – Taiko Tai – literally meaning “drum squad,” that is, large troupes of men who accompany (and sometimes carry) a large, very heavy, ornate platform carrying a “drum” through the streets of the town, with men standing on the platform barking orders and supervising events.

I have not been to Doi, but I’ve attended festive processions in other parts of Japan and pretty much have the overall impression – hoards of people, lots of food, manic performers, colorful costumes, rafts of men carrying heavy platforms . . . etc. This video (and the photos) make the point. I’m sure the Doi festival has its peculiarities; you’ll pardon my ignorance of the finer details, I hope.

Doi is now a district in Shikokuchūō (四国中央市),  a port city located in Ehime Prefecture on the northern shore of Shikoku – the smallest of the main islands that make up Japan, located south of the main island of Honshu and northeast of Kyushu. Shikokuchūō is a city created in 2004 out of 2 neighboring cities, and 2 smaller towns. Doi was one of the towns. The merger was a political move to establish a worthy capital should Shikoku become an island province, and the name Shikokuchūō (Shikoku Central City) was chosen to reflect this aspiration. It has been roundly condemned by locals as a name that is both unoriginal and uninspiring. Within this conurbation localities still strive to maintain their distinctiveness. Doi Taiko Matsuri helps Doi in this regard.

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If you watch the video you’ll see that there are certain basic elements to the Doi Taiko Matsuri processions. First, let’s consider the floats. They are large platforms on top of heavy wooden poles carrying an ornate “drum.” These platforms weigh around 3 or 4 tons apiece and can either be lifted in the air using the poles, or rest on a wheeled carriage. The “drum” is now an elaborately decorated centerpiece which I am assuming would have been a container for a real drum or drums at some point (based on processions I have seen elsewhere in Japan where drummers sit inside this centerpiece and knock out rhythms on drums inside). In Doi there appear to be no actual drums although they could be inside the towers – as they are in other parts of Shikoku. In some cases there are men sitting on top of the towers and might be drummers. There are, however, men standing on the platform directing the movements of the drum squad with hand gestures and whistles. All the actions of the drum squad are rhythmic.

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Second, the thrill of the procession is in the dexterity of the squads who are in competition with one another. For most of the procession the squads merely guide the float on its carriage as they work their way through the streets (you can’t see the carriages in the video because they are obscured by the men in the squads). But periodically they stop and, under the direction of the men on the platform, turn the float, and lift it above their heads. This action requires both strength and coordination. Speed, dexterity, strength, and agility are all judged critically by the onlookers – mostly Japanese, but with some foreign tourists mixed in (very few, because such events are not widely touted).

The Doi procession is relatively sedate in comparison with some I have seen, notably in Osaka. Some of these processions pull and push the floats at running speed through the streets with the men on top having to hold on tight as they careen around corners at breakneck speed. Others are carried on the men’s shoulders for long distances and then periodically shaken and tilted violently. These more active processions are potentially quite dangerous and there are records of the platforms falling over because of poor coordination of the squads, or runners being trampled. The energy and enthusiasm of the men in the squads is electric. It’s not hard to imagine them being carried overboard in the heat of the moment.

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Festival food is available everywhere on these days, of course. There’s really no way to replicate local specialties, so, instead, I’ll mention a famous one – Jakoten. Jakoten (じゃこ天) is a special product of Uwajima in Southern Ehime prefecture, but can be found at many festivals because it is good finger food. Jakoten was supposedly invented in the early 17th century and was originally a kind of steamed fish paste cake ordered by daimyo Date Hidemune to be made by his craftsman using fishes of Uwajima when he lived there. According to legend, he loved steamed fish cakes when he was in Sendai so he wanted to eat them also in Ehime.

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Hotarujako, which are small white fish, are common for making Jakoten. Hotarujako is the Japanese name for Acropoma japonicum, a member of the Acropomatidae family of bioluminescent fish, called, in English, glowbelly or lanternbelly. Hotarujako is also called Haranbo in Uwajima. First, the heads, viscera and scales of the fish are removed. Then, the remaining parts are minced including the bones. Seasoning is added and the minced fish is ground into a paste. Next, it is shaped into rectangular patties by using a wood frame. The patties are fried several minutes until they become brownish color.

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Jakoten are usually eaten with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and daikon. You can buy them on Shikoku cooked to eat immediately, or fresh to take home and cook. I couldn’t find an online source. They wouldn’t be any good anyway. They’d have to be frozen and shipped overnight. Just get on a plane and visit Doi.

Sep 192016
 

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Today is the feast of San Gennaro, Neapolitan dialect for Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, a celebration both in Naples and in Little Italy in New York city where many Neapolitan immigrants settled in the early 20th century. It was first celebrated in New York in September 1926 when immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street to continue the tradition they had followed in Italy. Naples actually has over 50 patrons, but Gennaro is the principal one, where he is the patron of the cathedral.

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Little is known of the life of Januarius, and what gets repeated is mostly derived from later Christian sources, such as the Acta Bononensia (BHL 4132, not earlier than 6th century) and the Acta Vaticana (BHL 4115, 9th century), and from later folk tradition. According to these dubious sources (from no earlier than 300 years after his death), Januarius was born in Benevento to a rich patrician family that traced its descent to the Caudini tribe of the Samnites. At the age of 15, he became local priest of his parish in Benevento, which at the time was relatively pagan. When Januarius was 20, he became Bishop of Naples and befriended Juliana of Nicomedia and Saint Sossius whom he met during his priestly studies. During the infamous persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, he hid his fellow Christians and prevented them from being caught. Unfortunately, while visiting Sossius in jail, he too was arrested. He and his colleagues were condemned to be thrown to wild bears in the Flavian Amphitheater at Pozzuoli, but the sentence was changed due to fear of public disturbances, and they were instead beheaded at the Solfatara crater near Pozzuoli. Other legends state either that the wild beasts refused to eat them, or that he was thrown into a furnace but came out unscathed.

Saint Januarius is famous for the alleged miracle of the annual liquefaction of his blood, which, according to legend, was saved by a woman called Eusebia just after the saint’s death. A chronicle of Naples written in 1382 describes the cult of Saint Januarius in detail, but mentions neither the relic nor the miracle. The first certain date is 1389, when it was found to have melted. Then, over the following two and a half centuries official reports began to appear declaring that the blood spontaneously melted, at first once a year, then twice, and finally three times a year. While the report of the very first incidence of liquefaction did not make any explicit reference to the skull of the saint, soon afterwards assertions began to appear that this relic was activating the melting process, as if the blood, recognizing a part of the body to which it belonged, “were impatient while waiting for its resurrection.” This explanation was definitively abandoned only in the 18th century.

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Thousands of people assemble to witness this event in Naples Cathedral three times a year: on September 19, on December 16 (celebrating his patronage of Naples and its archdiocese), and on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May (commemorating the reunification of his relics). The blood is also said to spontaneously liquefy at certain other times, such as papal visits. It liquefied in the presence of Pope Pius IX in 1848, but not that of John Paul II in 1979 or Benedict XVI in 2007. On March 21, 2015, Pope Francis venerated the dried blood during a visit to Naples Cathedral, saying the Lord’s Prayer over it and kissing it. Archbishop Sepe then declared that “The blood has half liquefied, which shows that Saint Januarius loves our pope and Naples.” Francis replied, “The bishop just announced that the blood half liquefied. We can see the saint only half loves us. We must all spread the Word, so that he loves us more!”

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The blood is stored in two hermetically sealed small ampoules, held since the 17th century in a silver reliquary between two round glass plates about 12 cm wide. The smaller ampoule (of cylindrical shape) contains only a few reddish spots on its walls, the bulk having allegedly been removed and taken to Spain by Charles III. The larger ampoule, with capacity of about 60 ml and almond-shaped, is about 60% filled with a dark reddish substance. Separate reliquaries hold bone fragments believed to belong to Saint Januarius. For most of the time, the ampoules are kept in a bank vault, whose keys are held by a commission of local notables, including the Mayor of Naples; while the bones are kept in a crypt under the main altar of Naples Cathedral. On feast days, all these relics are taken in procession from the cathedral to the Monastery of Santa Chiara, where the archbishop holds the reliquary up and tilts it to show that the contents are solid, and places it on the high altar next to the saint’s other relics. After intense prayers by the faithful, including the so-called “relatives of Saint Januarius” (parenti di San Gennaro), the content of the larger vial typically liquefies. The archbishop then holds up the vial and tilts it again to demonstrate that liquefaction has taken place. The announcement of the liquefaction is greeted with a 21-gun salute at the 13th-century Castel Nuovo. The ampoules remain exposed on the altar for eight days, while the priests move or turn them periodically to show that the contents remain liquid.

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At the 19th September mass in Naples the cathedral is typically packed to overflowing. The Cardinal presides and after mass takes out the reliquary from a side altar. He then moves to the front of the church whilst the congregation waves white handkerchiefs. He walks with the liquefied blood down the middle aisle for all to see. He continues his procession outside and announces to the city that the liquefaction has occurred, then he returns the blood to the altar. The reliquary is left there for the next eight days.

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After mass the streets of Naples are closed off for religious processions and there is a general carnival atmosphere throughout the city with vendors everywhere. It is no wonder that Neapolitan immigrants to New York continued the tradition – minus the blood, of course. There is a mass and a procession of the saint, with bystanders pinning money to ribbons trailing from the saint’s bier. All the streets of Little Italy are closed, and mobbed by visitors and stalls. It’s not particularly Neapolitan any more – more of an Italian-American celebration in general. I went one year eons ago. That was before I lost my taste for giant crowds.

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For a recipe I’m stuck with several quandaries. I have my usual one which is to say, if you want authentic Neapolitan food, go to Naples. But then there’s also the question of whether to highlight Naples or New York. Festival street food in New York tends towards the generic end of the Italian-American spectrum, which is to say products based on Sicilian cuisine.

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The main thing I’ve learned about Italian cooking since living here is that specialties are highly localized – often centered on a single town. There’s a sort of overarching sense that pasta and pizza are universal, but scratch the surface and you find that this is an overgeneralization, mostly perpetuated by foreigners. For example, where I live in the north, pasta is normal at every meal, but you’ll rarely find it sauced with anything involving tomatoes. That’s southern style. Likewise pizzas come in all different shapes, sizes, thicknesses, toppings, etc, with each region claiming that theirs is the best. You’ll find my modest rant on pizza – especially Neapolitan pizza – here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/pizza/ Talking about styles of pasta and their sauces would fill volumes.

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There’s a host of great street food in Naples for festivals which is much more to my taste than a sausage and meatball sub or some cannoli found in New York street booths. Give me frittatine any day, or pizzette fritte. Fried rice balls might fit the bill. A common type, usually called arancini, are said to have originated in 10th-century Sicily at a time when the island was under Arab rule. The most common type of arancino sold in Sicilian cafés are arancini con ragù, which typically consist of rice stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Many cafés also offer arancini con burro (with butter or béchamel sauce) or specialty arancini, such as arancini con funghi (mushrooms), con pistacchi (pistachios), or con melanzane (aubergine). In Roman cuisine, supplì are similar but are commonly filled with cheese. In Naples, rice balls are called pall’e riso or palle di riso. They are not like the Sicilian arancini, although they may be called arancini. Neapolitan rice balls typically do not have a filling but are simply mixtures of rice, eggs, and Parmigiano cheese. However they are stuffed or mixed, arancini are coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried.

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For Neapolitan rice balls use the ratio of 1 egg to 1 ¼ cups of uncooked Arborio rice to ⅓ cup  grated Parmigiano.  Cook the rice until tender, drain, and let cool to room temperature. Beat the egg(s) and mix together with the rice and cheese. Form into small balls and roll them in breadcrumbs so that they are completely coated. Place on baking trays and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Some cooks shallow fry the rice balls, but I prefer deep frying. Heat vegetable oil in a deep fryer to 350°F/175°C. Fry the rice balls in small batches so that they are golden all over. Drain on wire racks and serve warm.

Apr 042016
 

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On this date every year the Ose Matsuri (Fishermen’s Festival) takes place at Uchiura fishing port, Numazu City, in Shizuoka Prefecture Japan. Fishing boats come from a wide area around Numazu City to take part in the festival. The boats are festooned with flags, streamers and other decorations. But what makes the event unique is that all the rough and tough fishermen dress in women’s clothes and dance aboard the boats. The event is said to ensure good catches and safe trips at sea for the coming year. It is not certain when the festival began or why, but local folklore has it that it originated when the wife of a fisherman gave her husband a kimono to ensure he was safe on his voyage. Take that for what it is worth.

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Festivals of gender inversion are quite common worldwide and have been studied extensively by anthropologists. Naturally there is often an element of humor, as at the Ose Matsuri – tough men acting in effeminate ways. But inversion of roles and categories can also be very powerful culturally.  They highlight traditional roles, and may involve men appropriating the power that conventionally belongs to women.

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I have not been to this festival but I have attended other fishermen’s festivals in Japan. They are raucous affairs that are very well attended and enjoyed by the public. There is always music, drumming ,and dancing. There is also a wealth of festival food.

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Food on a stick is very common because it’s easy to eat as you walk around. There’s the usual grilled offerings, but you can also get pickles or fruit on skewers. There’s also fish-shaped pastries made in molds that are closed around a dough and grilled.

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Jan 072015
 

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Today is the Festival of Seven Herbs or Nanakusa no sekku (Japanese: 七草の節句), the long-standing Japanese custom of eating seven-herb rice porridge (nanakusa-gayu) on January 7 (Jinjitsu). “Herbs” in this context means greens, some of which are regular green vegetables and some of which are herbs in the West. This reminds me of the fact that until relatively recently all greens were called “herbs” in England. So a salad could be made of lettuce, spinach, sage, thyme, and so forth, and they were all “herbs.” The greens would then be dressed with oil and vinegar. The notion of using greens in the salad and then dressing with a vinaigrette with the herbs in it is a modern idea. You should try using lettuce, spinach, fresh basil, fresh mint, and so forth in the salad bowl and then adding oil and vinegar. It is much fresher than the conventional salad.

The nanakusa are the seven edible wild herbs of spring. Traditionally, they are

Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica)

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Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

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Cudweed (Gnaphalium affine)

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Chickweed (Stellaria media)

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Nipplewort (Lapsana apogonoides)

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Turnip greens (Brassica rapa)

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Daikon greens (Raphanus sativus)

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But there is considerable variation in the precise ingredients, with common local herbs often being substituted.

On the morning of January 7, or the night before, people place the nanakusa, rice scoop, and/or wooden pestle on the cutting board and, facing the good-luck direction, chant  — “Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let’s get nanakusa” while cutting the herbs into pieces. The chant may vary.

The seventh of the first month has been an important Japanese festival since ancient times. The custom of eating nanakusa-gayu on this day, to bring longevity and health, developed in Japan from a similar ancient Chinese custom, intended to ward off evil. Since there is little green at that time of the year, the young green herbs bring color to the table and eating them suits the spirit of the New Year.

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Nanakusa-gayu, and rice porridge in general, is not to my taste. It is quite common in China but not especially where I live. I find it too bland. I’ll eat it if given to me, but won’t eat it by choice. Preparation is simple. First you make a stock. For nanakusa-gayu make it by steeping konbu in water overnight. Konbu is a seaweed easily obtainable from Asian stores. Discard the seaweed and add some steamed Japanese rice to the broth. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the grains are really soft. Then add your chopped greens and cook for 5 minutes or so, and serve in bowls. For Westerners it would not be terribly sacrilegious to use whatever greens you can get hold of. But you should use some kind of fish or seaweed stock.