Time to eat Eho-maki!

In Japan, Setsubun (節分) is celebrated as the day before Spring, or more literally, the division of seasons (節=season, 分=divide). And there’s your Japanese for the day! Gee, if only I could get paid to do this!

Setsubun is commonly celebrated by throwing beans around your house shouting “Out with evil! In with luck!” (or not if you’re like me and can’t be bothered with cleaning up). It’s a day for exorcising your home as a ritual used to evict evil spirits,

Warning: overgeneralized Japanese culture lesson imminent (at least I gave you fair warning). Setsubun is important in Japan because it is one of many seasonal celebrations that commemorate stuff that Japanese use to control what they do, say, buy, eat, and so on. Yeah, Japan is all about seasons. Spring itself is a particularly important season for Japan. Many of the Japanese’ favorite things happen in Spring: School, work (fiscal year and new grads), cherry blossoms, all kicking off in April. All the more reason to kick out any demonic squatters lest they start hiding your homework, company ID pass, and cooking your books.

Setsubun is also the time when Japanese traditionally eat a kind of sushi called eho-maki. This is a special kind of futomaki that is basically the same as a maru-kaburi-maki (aka maru-kajiri-maki) or “wrapped sushi eaten whole” (wrapped sushi is normally cut into smaller pieces) and different from a temaki or “hand-roll.” I will use eho-maki for the remainder of this post because that’s what everyone calls it this time of year thanks to 7-11 coining it in the late 1990′s.

Eho-maki sushi served with salmon nigiri sushi and chawanmushi (steamed cup).

I think it’s generally agreed that eho-maki gets its name from, 1) the belief that each year, a “lucky direction” or “eho” is decided by the year’s zodiac, and 2) “maki”, the Japanese word for “wrap”, as in wrapped sushi (makizushi). Also, when eating, you are supposed to face the direction of the eho for the year. Exactly when the practice of eating eho-maki was born is hard to pinpoint, but it dates at least back a few hundred years according to some accounts. It has since spread to other parts of Japan and has become a popular item in supermarkets, hotels, sushi restaurants, and even convenience stores.

As mentioned already, eho-maki is eaten whole. But while other wrapped sushi can be eaten whole, too, that wouldn’t necessarily qualify them as eho-maki. A few things to remember about eho-maki are, 1) Eho-maki is normally eaten during Setsubun. If not, then it’s just a plain old futomaki (thick wrapped sushi), and having said that, 2) you can’t just stuff anything into a futomaki and call it a perfect eho-maki even during Setsubun (except, yeah, you totally can and nobody would really care.) because the most “lucky” of eho-makis contain ingredients representing the 7 Lucky Gods (shichifukujin, go look it up). Thus, the eho-maki is the edible manifestation of good fortune, which gets me to 3) you take your lucky sushi and face the direction of the “eho” when eating, and 4) if you cut your eho-maki, then you’re ruining whatever good fortune that might have been coming to you in that long, black, flaccid, slightly fishy smelling, okat let me stop before I have to start putting up an annoying 18+ confirmation popup window.

As Setsubun marks the start of the Japanese traditional year, it’s natural to want to get off to a good start and put yourself on the path towards the “lucky direction”. If you’re a  gaijin (foreigner) in Japan trying to experience (or show off your knowledge of) Japanese culture, then it’s entirely acceptable to, if you absolutely have to, go ahead and eat eho-maki the traditional way: Close your eyes, face the eho “lucky direction”, and make a wish.

Photo from http://yakult-swallows.co.jp/“If you say ,’we look gay doing this,’ one more time, by golly I swear I’ll…!”

Actually, no one in Japan does this. The Japanese use this as a trick in the same manner as the if-your-hand-is-bigger-than-your-face-then-you’re-gay prank, but rather than make you slap yourself with your own hand, they prefer to pretend to be impressed by your knowledge of Japanese culture while on the inside think of ways to get you to teach them English for free.

If you’re making eho-maki at home, don’t pay attention to recipes. Chances are, you won’t have access to the ingredients (unless you’re in Japan). Even if you do you’ll buy them once and have a bunch leftover never to be used again.

The easiest version (pictured above) for me is salmon sashimi, salmon eggs (ikura), fried egg pancake, salted cucumber, and sauteed shimeji mushrooms. You can pick up everything above in your local grocer ( sub out shimejis for regular shrooms) minus the salmon eggs, which can probably be picked up at your nearby bait shop (ask them if it’s fresh)*. Nuke a cocktail vinegar, sugar, some Oriental Top Ramen powder soup flavoring and add to steamed or Minute Rice. Wrap it all up in your favorite seaweed and prepare to eat on Feb 3, 2014. Congrats! You’ve got yourself some eho-maki.