Obon, O Baby: Exploring the Food that Fuels Obon Festival in Seaside (Plus Recipes)
July 7, 2011
Droplets of soy sauce splatter from a metal wok. Rice boils from heavy duty rice cookers and thin hibiscus-yellow shreds of kinshi tamago lay on the countertop. Stacks of dark (almost black) green seaweed shine from a corner and sliced sunset-colored carrots fall to the floor as the sweet, rich aroma of homemade teriyaki sauce spreads throughout the kitchen. The hustle and bustle grows—and the festival that inspires all of the preparation is still four days away.
The vigorous level of activity is one of many clues of just how significant a part the food plays at Monterey Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival, an annual Japanese tradition that celebrates the deceased. (The pictures by Nic Coury above show the team prepping kuri manju, a bean-paste-based dessert.)
Ancestors' spirits come back to their homes to be re-united with family. The tradition is based on legend: One of Buddha's disciples, Mogallana, had the power to see the “underworld.” With his ability, he saw his deceased mother being tormented by the realm of the hungry ghosts. To help her, Mogallana was instructed to give offerings of food and wine to Buddhist priests. After the hungry ghosts realized the son’s honorable actions toward his mother, she was released in mid July to a “higher” place, hence the Obon date. The celebratory dance to remember the ancestors’ sacrifices is called the Obon.
~~~ By the time the brown shiitake mushrooms are boiling at 4am in the morning this Sunday, July 10, a team of two dozen temple members and staff will have been working in the temple’s kitchen for 11 days straight.
Chief among the cooks are a number of petite Japanese women with heads wrapped in multicolored Japanese floral print scarves. These women, some of them in their 90s, come into the temple each year to cook, paying close attention to detail. Despite the fact that they are making food for literally thousands, all of the vegetable cutting must be done by hand. Cuisinart simply won’t do: The slightest variation in shape and texture of a carrot slice makes a difference to these attentive ladies.
When prepping shrimp, meanwhile, knives are not allowed. Instead, these women press the spine of the shrimp with index and third fingers to flatten the shrimp for the bara sushi. They also won’t allow temple staff to buy eggs for the bara sushi. Instead, these women purchase their own eggs from supermarkets, paying close attention to the look and size.
Although small in physical size, these women cook up treasured family recipes bursting with big flavor. Their egos tend to scale to their stature more than the food’s deliciousness.
“These women don’t like to bring attention to themselves,” says Akemi Ito, temple president and and Obon committee member. They’re shy. If they’re put on the spot, they’d rather be referred to as a ‘we’ versus an ‘I.’
They also don’t cook according to written recipes. “I’ve never seen the recipes written, not even abbreviated,” says Ito. The women cook according to touch, feel, smell, taste and look.
Written or unwritten, few cooks here are sharing their very personal and authentic secrets.
“They don’t even share their recipes with each other because it’s unique to them,” says Ellie Hattori, Obon chair. “And I don’t blame them.”
But it’s not to say the recipes aren’t coming out, especially in the past four years.
“They’re letting go of their recipes because they have no energy to cook them anymore,” says Hattori, scanning the kitchen’s stainless steel pots and pans. In turn, it allows for future Japanese generations to get ahold of the gold.
Locals certainly want in on it.
“In general, people are learning more about cultures, and they’ve embraced Japanese food,” says Hattori, smiling.
At the Obon they'll be treated to tempura, tempted by kushi katsu (breaded and deep fried pork on a bamboo stick) and grazing on gyoza (crescent shaped meat or vegetarian dumplings). There will be spam musubi, a small block of rice held together by two slices of Spam and wrapped with seaweed, a treat borrowed from the Hawaiian islands. Sukiyaki, a “leftover dish” that began in America in the 1950s, piles up thin slices of beef, mushrooms and carrots cooked in a broth. (It’s a “very American Japanese stew that is now a sophisticated dish in restaurants,” says Ito.) Okonomiyaki, a uniquely Japanese pizza/pancake, can include everything from octopus to cheese to mayonnaise and seaweed.
Even though recipes can be difficult to extract from the proud cooks, Hattori was generous enough to share her own recipes for a selections of foods featured at the Obon. Curious cookers who decide to recreate the inari sushi recipe will notice how ingredients come in batches of odd numbers—the Japanese almost always cook in odd numbers. That’s because they have superstitions regarding even numbers. It isn’t clear why even numbers are simply bad luck; when you ask these cooks why they say it simply is. But the meaning behind number four, at least, makes sense: It’s pronunciation is the same as death.
Leading up to the event, the bustling prep will only intensify. “I’ve got lots to do each day,” Ito says, “especially tomorrow.” It comes out toh-mohh-roh as she uses a Japanese accent to say an English word.
“Ah, I’m talking Japanese,” she shrieks. But in a time of mixing Japanese culture and food with a little American touch, it comes out just right.
Ellie’s Traditional Inari sushi Day before: 1. 3 doz whole age (fried tofu) cut in half. Place into boiling water. Squeeze against the side of the pot to remove the oil. Drain. When cooled a bit squeeze the water out by hand. 2. Prepare seasoning sauce for the age: a. 1C broth b. ⅓ C mirin ( sweet cooking sake) c. ⅓ C Kikkoman soy sauce d. ⅓ C sugar e. ⅓ C sake (rice wine) 3. Place the age in a large pot and pour the seasoning sauce over it. Place a heavy plate then rock on top of the age. Cover, bring to boil then simmer for 1 hour. Allow to cool and refrigerate.
Day of Assembly: 1. Cook up 8C Japanese rice (short grain) 2. Prepare rice seasoning. Cook following ingredients until dissolved. a. 1 C rice vinegar b. 1 C sugar c. 1 T salt 3. When rice is cooked pour into a large mixing bowl. Add seasoning . Mix the seasoning into rice with a rice paddle. The rice should be fanned while mixing. The fanning gives the rice a nice luster. The mixing is complete when the rice reaches room temperature. 4. Remove the age and squeeze out excess sauce. Carefully open, then stretch the age. Stuff with the seasoned rice. Wetting your hands with water and vinegar will allow you to handle the rice easier. 5. Place completed inari sushi on a platter with open end facing down.
Ellie’s Sweet Rice (Mochi) Cake Cream together: ½ C butter 2 C sugar Add: 5 eggs, one at a time and beat Then add: 5 tsp baking powder 2 ½ C milk 1 lb (box) Mochiko rice flour Mix all together and pour into a jelly roll cake pan. (11x15) Bake 350 for 40-45 mins. Cool, cut into bars. Sprinkle with sifted powder sugar.
Ellie’s Teriyaki Marinade 1C Kikkoman soy sauce 1C brown sugar or honey 1C sake 2T fresh grated ginger 2T finely chopped garlic ¼ T chili flakes Simmer all the ingredients until well mixed. Use for basting on beef or chicken.
The Obon Festival takes place noon–7pm Sunday, July 10, at Monterey Peninsula Buddhist Temple, 1155 Noche Buena St., Seaside. Free. 394-0119. www.montereybuddhist.org