Niiname-sai 新嘗 Japanese Thanksgiving
Held on the of 23rd November.
Now also celebrated as a non-religious public holiday known as ‘Labor Thanksgiving Day.’
The day was originally called Niiname-sai 新嘗祭 the “autumn festival.” and was the day of gratitude for the harvest season to deities and those involved in the hard work of farming food production. Niiname-sai is celebrated in the Shinto religion on this day with events held at shrines across the country.
The Shinto gods of harvest are believed to live in the mountains during the winter. At the end of the harvest season each year, the gods return to the mountains then are welcomed back the following spring for planting season.
The term itself often translates to “celebration of the first taste”, In the festival, various kinds of products including newly harvested rice known as Shinmai 新米 and vegetables produced by local farmers are offered on the altar to the kami, ( spirits) expressing gratitude for a rich harvest. Shinmai officially, is rice that is harvested, processed, and packaged for sale before 31st December of that year. Shinmai usually becomes available in early autumn and remains available only until the end of the year. On the day of Niiname-sai, many shrine worshippers attend the festival.
The sharing of food and drink with the gods is called “naorai”. Today, the term naorai can refer to sharing drinks or rice cakes with friends. Eating shinmai is a treasured and celebrated time.
I thought it would be nice to make a simple rice dish made and eaten by mountain workers in japan. The workers would stick rice on pieces of wood and grill them, eating them spread with miso paste while drinking sake, to pray for their safety when working in the mountains. This meal is known as “Gohei-mochi” 五平餅.
Gohei mochi is a centuries old local cuisine which may date back to the middle of the Edo period (about 1700 – 1750) originating in the Chubu mountainous regions specifically in Nagano, Gifu and Aichi prefectures around central Japan.
There are many theories as to the origin of the name “Gohei mochi “; some say it was created in the shape of a “gohei” (ritual wand with pleated paper), an offering to the gods.
Rice is mashed into a mochi like consistency but keeping some of the grains visible then either formed into the shape of waraji a traditional sandal or rolled into dango . It is then skewered and coated with soy sauce and sugar popular in the Kiso valley and Hilda region. Or covered in miso which is considered the Aichi Prefecture region’s specialty. You may of seen the anime film Your Name which is set in the Hida region and characters are seen eating goheimochi in various scenes, which increased its popularity.
Other examples of goheimochi sauce include honey and walnut so with this in mind I decided to make a combination of a sweet walnut and miso paste to coat the mochi rice balls.
This is how I made Gohei Mochi
For the mochi
1 cup (the cup you get with your rice cooker) of uncooked Japanese rice which is short-grain, sticky rice. Then rinse the rice thoroughly in water.
( I added a little amaranth grain to mine ) cook with 1 and a half rice cooker cups of water in your rice cooker.
While it’s cooking make you sweet walnut miso paste topping.
Sweet walnut miso paste topping
Toast 20g of walnuts in a pan til fragrant then add this to a suribachi ( mortar and pestle ) then add 20g of toasted white sesame seeds to the walnuts and grind into a grainy powder. Or like I did you can use already toasted and ground sesame seeds called Suri Goma すりごま
Add to a pan
1tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp of mirin
And 40g sugar
Gently heat and mix well until the sugar has dissolved
Turn off the heat and then mix in 1 tbsp of miso paste stirring to combine without lumps.
Mix your walnuts and sesame into the miso mixture.
Spoon into a bowl and set aside.
When your rice is cooked let it steam further for ten minutes then tip into a bowl . Using your surikogi pestle pound the fresh steamed rice until the grains are half-crushed.
Using damp hands take potions of rice and form into equal balls .
( I used wooden chop sticks the type you get with takeaway food as a skewer as they are thicker and the rice sticks better) push the rice balls through the wooden skewer adding three to a skewer you can then mould the rice balls around the skewer.
Wipe a pan with oil ( I used toasted sesame ) you don’t want the rice sitting in oil and cook both sides of the Gohei mochi lightly in a pan to make them less prone to falling apart.
Now spread your sweet walnut miso paste on the top of Gohei mochi . Wrap the visible wooden skewer with silver foil so it doesn’t burn . Sprinkle a few sesame seeds on-top and toast under the grill.
Enjoy straight away, for a delicious snack that’s warm chewy, sweet nutty and toasty. If you have some of walnut miso mixture left it is delicious to use on tofu or nasu dengaku you add a little extra warm water to make into a dressing to drizzle over vegetables or mix into green beans.
Other meals you could make to celebrate Japanese thanksgiving could be chirashi sushi ( sushi rice with lots of seasonal toppings or mixed rice ( Takikomi Gohan ) .