Setsubun and beans article in the Japan Times and food superstitions
This month’s Japan Times article is about the traditions and superstitions surrounding Setsubun or Risshun, the first day of spring, which is coming up on February 3rd. The focus of the article is on the tradition of mamemaki, or the throwing of roasted beans to drive away oni, the fierce evil spirits that embody bad luck. I’ve always wondered myself why beans are thrown - and now, through my research, I know. It’s really fascinating to find out about all the rituals and traditions of yore, and I get to explore them at depth through writing about them.
While I did know about the bean-throwing tradition, and I have previously written about the ehoumaki tradition of eating a fat, uncut sushi roll which has become popularized all over Japan in recent times, I didn’t know about the tradition of hanging grilled sardines (iwashi), until I talked to my mother about it. I’d never heard how she and her siblings used to hang sardine heads under the porch when she was growing up. I love the idea of the neighbohood cats coming to feast on the anti-evil fish heads in the middle of the night, probably thumbing their paws at the silly superstitions of humans.
Here is a lucky setsubun meal with grilled sardines, stewed beans, and mame gohan (soy beans cooked with rice), something they ate in my mom’s small hometown in Saitama.
The recipe for the beans and rice is in the article. By the way if you live in Japan or nearby a well stocked Japanese grocery store, you can buy canned cooked soy beans. These will cut down your cooking time considerably.
And speaking of beans - aren’t these gorgeous? Can you believe that three of them are variations of soy beans? The ones on the upper left are regular white-beige ones, the ones on the upper right are green soy beans, and the ones on the bottom are red soy beans. (The beans to the left and right are azuki and kuromame or black beans). They are big, round and absolutely delicious. They were sent via my mom by Kamo Dofu Kinki in Kyoto, who makes spectacular soy milk and tofu from them. (Read more about Kamo Dofu Kinki and their tofu-centered restaurant, Sosoan.) Ah, I’m missing Japan so much right now.
The main memory of setsubun that I have as a kid is going to the local Shinto shrine and trying to catch the bags of roasted beans the priests threw while chanting oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi. I would always get an upset tummy from eating too many of those roasted beans, but they were so good.
And finally: remember my stepfather dressing up as Santa for Christmas? It looks like he has more plans for dressing up…
Food superstitions - how about yours?
Japanese traditional culture is chock full of food related rituals, superstitions and beliefs. How about your culture? What kind of food related traditions does it have, and what are their meanings? One that comes to mind for me in Western/European culture is the one about spilling salt being unlucky, and throwing a little pinch of it over your shoulder to counteract that bad luck. What are some others? The more regional and obscure, the better!