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Keeping Alive Culinary Customs of Japan : Culture: Nisei women see it as their responsibility to carry on tradition of preparing special foods for New Year's. Even residents of Japan, they say, have turned to prepackaged dishes.

January 03, 1995|MAKI BECKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More and more, agree the ladies of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center in Sylmar, it's up to the second generation--the Nisei--to keep the Japanese traditions of New Year's celebrations alive.

These women, who frequent the weekly senior lunch and activities day, say their relatives in Japan buy prepackaged food, and their children and grandchildren would rather eat Chinese chicken salad and watch football.

But these women proudly prepare from scratch the traditional New Year's dishes--such as ozoni, pounded rice cake in a fish broth, and onishime, simmered winter vegetables--to share with friends and family on New Year's Day.

And on Monday, Aya Hiraoka was true to tradition. She spent the weekend preparing more than a score of dishes at her Sylmar home--enough to feed every member of her extended family on Sunday and all her friends from the community center on Monday.

Neatly arranged on a lacquered plate was the onishime Hiraoka made from bardok root, pumpkin and lotus root.

Other ceremonial dishes included red and white namasu, finely sliced daikon radish and carrots that had been marinated in vinegar, and a broiled tai fish.

The fish dish had an extra personal touch: Her husband, Harry, makes it a yearly ritual to catch a perch from Zuma Beach for his wife's special meal.

"He usually catches a little fish," Aya Hiraoka said. Laughing, she added: "I do have a bigger one in the freezer, but he wants his fish for the celebration."

In Japan, the tradition is to cook mounds of special foods just before New Year's because the first week of the year is considered a holiday during which no work should be done--not even cooking. Almost every dish for the first seven days of the new year is food that does not need to be cooked or reheated.

But because this was a party by and for Japanese Americans, the Hiraokas' New Year's spread reflected the meeting of the two cultures: tamales, Chinese duck, lasagna--and sushi rolls made with Spam.

Aya Hiraoka and her friends insist that it's up to them to carry on the culinary customs. They scoff at their counterparts in Japan. "Everything over there (in Japan) is prepackaged," said Aiko Ross-Myring. "Even the rice."

Tetsuko Suzumoto turned down the invitation to go to the Hiraoka celebration this year, but for good reason. Her daughter in Camarillo, who is 45, called her to ask for help in preparing, for the first time, the New Year's meal. "I was very surprised that she wanted to do oshogatsu (Japanese New Year)," Suzumoto said.

She, too, believes that Japanese Americans are more likely to keep the tradition than residents of Japan. "I think America is the only place that still has this," she said.

On New Year's Eve, Suzumoto took her grandchildren to a Buddhist temple and, at the stroke of midnight, fed them a long noodle called toshikoshi-soba, which is said to bring good luck in the new year.

Harry Hiraoka said he and his wife partook of that tradition this year, too, at their own home. "We had a noodle at midnight . . . and then went to sleep."

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