Yuko’s wine bar near Tsukiji

I met Yuko at one of the Spanish cooking classes I held at home in September this year. As usual, the participants to that class asked me what I do in life (besides cooking), so I explained Tadaku, which was yet to be launched. She immediately fell in love with the concept, and we arranged a meeting a few days later to provide some more details, where she could avoid having to worry about the tomato sauce or the lamb getting churned in the oven.

Yuko is the owner of a cozy, stylish wine bar near the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo, the biggest fish market in the world. She goes there several times a week to buy fresh seasonal ingredients for the food she serves at her bar. She knows the place well, and has her selection of small shops she always goes to.

Yuko's wine bar

Yuko’s wine bar, with kabosu (a Japanese citrus) liqueur in the foreground.

Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world

Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world

When I explained about Tadaku, she started imagining taking guests for a tour through Tsukiji market before her cooking class. Yuko really enjoys sharing true local Japanese culture with foreigners, as she herself oftens travels to Italy (her Italian is pretty good!), and was telling me that the best moments she had were the times she spent visiting local markets and being introduced to local dishes by her Italian friends. Yuko is talkative and outgoing, and loves what she does.

We decided to prepare a menu that included a visit to Tsukiji market, something that most travelers interested in her cooking class would certainly appreciate. The menu includes Chanko Nabe, a kind of fondue often eaten by sumo wrestlers due to the high quantity of nutrients and calories it contains. It is made with fish, vegetables and a little bit of meat. At the end, when only the soup is remaining, white rice and egg are added, mixed together and eaten to close the meal with another couple of hundred calories. Recommended for sumo aspirants or for a cold winter day. Look here for more details.

Chanko nabe

Chanko nabe, a typical sumo wrestler meal. Hundreds of calories packed in a small pot.

Toshi-koshi Soba in Japan

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Many have probably heard of Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles, but toshi-koshi soba may be foreign! This is a tradition, which still remains very common these days, of eating soba on the final day of the year, often close to midnight. Soba noodles are thin and very long, and so are said to bring longevity to those who eat them. I have to say, I feel a year younger today!

Mochi-tsuki in Gunma Prefecture

Japan has a culture so rich and so deep that even after having been here for 6 years, I’m still hearing new customs and traditions for the first time. Mochi-tsuki is something I’d heard about before, but never had the chance to try. This weekend, however, I was lucky enough to be invited out to Gunma prefecture to join the ceremony with a friend’s family.

My friend's house in Shibukawa, Gunma prefecture.

My friend’s house in Shibukawa, Gunma prefecture.

Mochi is Japanese rice cake, made of mochigome, a short-grain rice, and is eaten year-round in Japan, but is traditionally made in the mochi-tsuki ceremony on the 30th of December each year.

Mochi

The mochi starting to look more like mochi!

First, the rice is soaked overnight and then cooked by steaming. It is then placed into a hollowed out wooden mortar called an usu, and hammered with wooden mallets called kine. Usually the hammering is done by two people, alternating in a steady rhythm to avoid hitting each other (the kine are very heavy!).

Cooking the mochi.

Cooking the mochi.

This family's 'usu' is almost 100 years old.

This family’s ‘usu’ is almost 100 years old.

Every now and then, the mochi is turned and wet a little more, and after it reaches a smooth consistency, it is placed onto a large wooden board and covered with a special flour, before being rolled flat with a rolling pin. It can be formed into various shapes, depending on the dish it is being used for.

Mochi gets very sticky and stretchy!

Mochi gets very sticky and stretchy!

The 'kine' being used to hammer the mochi.

The ‘kine’ being used to hammer the mochi.

Rolling out the mochi.

Rolling out the mochi.

Our mochi batches almost ready!

Our mochi batches almost ready!

The most well-known dish in which mochi is used is the traditional soup eaten on New Year’s Day, o-zōni, but mochi is eaten in a number of different ways. There’s also kinako-mochi (mochi coated in soy bean flour, and also often brown sugar syrup), daifuku, or anpin for those using the Gunma dialect (sweet red bean paste wrapped in mochi), or various other sweet and savoury treats.

O-zōni, the traditional New Year's Day soup.

O-zōni, the traditional New Year’s Day soup.

Kinako-mochi - usually eaten for good luck.

Kinako-mochi – usually eaten for good luck.

'Daifuku' or 'anpin'.

‘Daifuku’ or ‘anpin’.

Eating traditional meals with Japanese families has always been the highlight of my time in Japan, and even better is being involved in the cooking process!