Ando Muneno Starts the New Year Off with a Dangerous Bowl of O-zoni Soup

A kid (not Ando Muneno) takes a chance on o-zoni soup.
A kid (not Ando Muneno) takes a chance on o-zoni soup.

This holiday season, Chow Bella asked some of our favorite writers to regale us with tales of the holidays -- and food. What do you eat on New Year's Day? For many that's a trick question -- it's not a day you want to think about food, except perhaps greasy breakfast food late in the afternoon. Not so for Ando Muneno, who is kind enough to share tales from the Japanese New Year's Day potluck -- emphasis on luck.

See also: - Champagne: Good, Better, Best Options with Kimber Stonehouse of Sportsman's - Where to Drink and What to Eat in Phoenix on New Year's Eve - Eating Christmas: Valley Writers Nosh on the Holidays

Sitting in a Marine Corps firehouse on New Year's Day, watching the Japanese equivalent of The Gong Show and waiting for the inevitable "Drunk Marine Exits Window From X Floor" gives a person plenty of time to reflect on the holidays. It's one of the reasons I've grown to love New Year's.

After Thanksgiving the holidays become a blur of pumpkin spice, inappropriate eggnog flavoring and rushing from one social engagement to the next. For my Japanese-American family, New Year's Day is just on the other side of the holiday finish line. It's a time for rest, reflection and the eating of thematic foods. Sadly the needs of the military dictated on the aforementioned year that I couldn't be home for the holidays. So there I was, watching Japanese TV without subtitles and wishing I could be gnawing on some o-zoni instead of whatever the chow hall was offering that day.

At home, we run our New Year's Day potluck style. Everyone brings a dish or two and dining is continuous. Traditional New Year's Day food is supposed to be served cold for reasons that were never sufficiently explained to me. This fits the theme of "post-holiday relaxation celebration" nicely since it means dishes can be prepared the day before, refrigerated and simply uncovered at the party. No freaking out over overcooked roast, undercooked turkey or burned gravy. Just a plate of tasty bites and Japanese soap operas.

Be warned: The New Year's Day menu is probably the most inviolable of the holiday menus. We might deep fry a cajun injected chicken for Thanksgiving, slow roast a standing rack of ribs for Christmas or even mix it up completely by dropping a couple hundred dollars on a bathtub of cioppino. But come January First, you can expect a certain procedure to be followed.  

First thing, after a wild night of drinking Martinelli's sparkling apple cider, you roll out of bed and shuffle over to breakfast to chow down on one of the most dangerous foods in the world: o-zoni. No, seriously. O-zoni is a soup with a light broth, molten pieces of chewy pounded rice cakes called mochi and garnished with green onions and napa cabbage. It's one of the leading causes of food-related deaths in Japan and the government has to put out PSAs about trying to avoid literally choking one down around the holidays.

The preferred method of getting it out involves a vacuum.

Yes, I'm shocked I survived childhood, too.

The actual eating of o-zoni has some serious cultural relevance which, of course, my parents can't recall. The practical use of o-zoni is that it's the perfect palate cleanser. You sip some broth, nibble carefully at your rice cake and reflect on the fact that it's a brand new year. After a couple small bowls of o-zoni you start digging into the mochi directly.

There are varying schools of thought on this but generally you either toast it like a rice marshmallow in the toaster oven or you nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave. Sugar and soy sauce are mixed together in equal parts to make an impromptu teriyaki dipping sauce.

The actual New Year's Day potluck is important, too, and we have many traditions that surround it. But as the sun came up on that faintly chilly Okinawan morning, it's the eating of the o-zoni I missed the most. Maybe that's because trying to eat something that could kill you, and winning, is a pretty grand way to start a new year.

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