Zenzai Mullings at the Close of the Year
The closing of the year always seems a time of opposites. While the weather grows colder, the days darker, the nights longer, our seasonal traditions stand in defiance of the wind and cold that knocks at the door. Illuminations, parties, feasts and festivities seem blissfully unaware of the cold, long winter ahead. There is a wholesomeness to the season. Hot, filling, hearty fare now decks the table. In Japan, now is the season where the scent of roasting sweet potatoes fills the neighborhood.
With the nippy weather comes the desire for something hot and sweet to warm the body. In Japan, one of the ways this craving has traditionally been satisfied is by a red bean soup made up of variations of azuki bean and mochi called shiruko or zenzai – depending on the consistency of the beans.
Red beans eaten during the winter time, like a fruit cake or Yule Log in the West, have an inherent festive connotation. Ancient records note that the Chinese ate azuki beans on the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to ward off evil. The custom eventually spread to Japan, and before long it was common to eat this type of bean on special occasions.
While the Japanese eat red beans no matter the time of year these days, to me the seasonal connotation of red beans is particularly strong in the winter time. Perhaps this stems from its inclusion in the traditional New Year’s dish sekihan and the prevalence of warm azuki bean beverage and soups. There’s also the color itself – red –seen as a color to ward off evil, and as a symbol of good luck. Its shades are worn by the gods, deities, and other protective spirits.
Indeed, red, white and green are the traditional holiday colors in Japan as well. In the West, green was the original color the season – boughs of holly, ivy, and evergreen decorated the house to represent long life, peace, and good luck – as these hardy plants can survive winter’s gales. Later, the color red became associated with the season – stemming from the red apples found on the tree of Paradise, and later, the blood of Christ. White, despite its snowy prevalence, came last – and was seen as a color to invoke purity. Japan has their own special traditions - green of bamboo or pine – which represent longevity and prosperity, the white of the rope and paper which marks a sacred space, and the red as describes above.
It’s easy to get distracted with the hustle and bustle, lists, to-dos and parties. Nevertheless, should you have a moment, I recommend buying the few simple ingredients needed for zenzai or shiruko, and while gazing over the steamy brim to take a long and nostalgic look back at the year, and feast on the future to come.