New Year's Zoni
Zoni is traditionally enjoyed on New Year's morning.
Life in Japan was once considered either hare or ke: Hare pertained to special occasions, while ke referred to daily routine. In the past, the daily diet was plain and simple, but during celebratory events the food was special, intended—as it still is today—to enrich the festive atmosphere.
Mochi, a sticky, rather chewy cake made of steamed, pounded glutinous rice, is one of those foods associated with hare, and is traditionally enjoyed on New Year's morning in the dish known as zoni, a soup that contains vegetables, meat or fish, and of course—some form of mochi.
The term zoni actually embraces a wide variety of soups which differ widely according to region. The mochi cakes may be round or rectangular, toasted or boiled; and while stock flavorings and ingredients reflect local tastes, generally the soup is seasoned with either soy sauce or miso.
By and large, those in eastern Japan prepare a clear soup flavored with soy sauce, accompanied by toasted rectangular-shaped mochi. In western Japan, boiled round-shaped mochi in clear soup flavored with soy sauce is the norm; in the Kansai region (Kyoto and Osaka), the soup is seasoned with white miso. Kelp and bonito are commonly used to make most stock, but there are unique variations, such as adzuki bean soup.
The ingredients of any zoni tend to reflect whatever produce is most commonly available in a particular region. In addition to vegetables such as daikon, carrot and long onion, chicken may be added in eastern Japan; edible wild plants or mushrooms in mountainous areas; yellow tail, salmon, salmon roe, clams or oysters in coastal areas.
Zoni is, in short, a dish so clearly defined by specific local characteristics that it is possible to identify a family's region of origin—even though they may have relocated years or even generations before—simply by observing how they prepare their zoni.
Zoni is first mentioned in fourteenth-century written documents; however, zoni is believed to have been eaten long before then. During the edo period (1603-1867), as mochi became more generally popular, people came to include zoni in their New Year's menus. Today, zoni in its many forms appears on New Year tables almost entirely throughout the country as a taste to celebrate and symbolize new beginnings.