Hina Matsuri: a Feast for Dolls and their Owners in the U.S.

From Terry Brown, remembering preparing the feast for his daughters
Ingredients: In a large metro area with a Japanese grocery, you will find all the ingredients you need. Korean stores almost always stock the items, too, and Chinese places will have most of them.  If not, then we have the Web. I found a site on the Web for Mikawaya, an old, established mochiya in LA where I used to buy wonderful Japanese confections years ago.  I notice they have sekihan for sale.  I don’t know how good it is, but, if you really must have it as part of the meal,  that’s one less thing to make in what can be a pretty time-consuming meal to prepare.  I see they offer ro ship their mochigashi, too. Here’s their link.  http://mikawayausa.com/

Festival treats:

Sakuramochi. These "cherry cakes" are a must. Sakuramochi are a confection made of the ever-present sweetened azuki-bean paste (called an or anko and available in cans if you don’t want to bother making it), wrapped in some type of rice cover and then rolled in a preserved cherry leaf.  The type of rice covering depends on whether you come form the Kanto  or Tokyo area of eastern Japan, or the Kansai, around Kyoto and Osaka. About.com has recipes for making them: http://japanesefood.about.com/library/recipe/blrecipe_indexdessert.htm  Since the leaves are hard to come by, I've preserved my own.  What a pain! Buy them if you can!  They are often available in the frozen or refrigerated section of Asian groceries, especially around the holiday.  You eat leaf and all.  For Japanese, the aroma of sakuramochi can conjure up memories of Hinamatsuri like nothing else.

Sekihan: The pink rice is called sekihan, or more typically o-sekihan or “honorable red rice.”  It is made with a different type of rice than your everyday short-grain white rice that Japanese eat.  The raw rice is called “mochigome” and is packaged in the US with labels that call it variously “glutionous,” “sweet” or “sticky” rice.  The little red beans it’s cooked with are azuki, sometimes spelled adzuki.  The color comes from cooking the rice in the water that the beans have soaked in.  It’s served warm just after cooking, or more frequently, at room temperature, with a mixture of slightly toasted black sesame seeds mixed with salt. The Japanese serve it at holidays and even weddings.   Used to be mothers would also prepare it for the first of every month.
I was taught the only way to prepare it was to is to steam the mochigome and partially cooked beans wrapped in a cloth over a steamer--it is not to be boiled in a pot like regular rice.  But, when looking for a recipe on the Web, I see cooks nowadays use a rice cooker.  My way takes a while tho’ it's not particularly complicated to make.  But to save some time, here’s a link to a recipe at About.com for sekihan. 
http://japanesefood.about.com/od/holidaytraditionalfood/r/sekihanrecipe.htm
This recipe looks like it a close adaptation using a rice cooker rather than a steamer, but, as I say, I’ve never cooked it that way myself. 
Two more things you need to know:
  •     Cook the beans uncovered, which is necessary to ensure the nice red color. 
  •     It’s important, after you measure the amount of rice you need, to let your rice soak in the water for 30 minutes before turning on the stove/clicking the cooker switch.  That improves the texture and aroma of the cooked rice, and thus the taste.  With mochigome, you need to soak it about an hour.
Foods that go on the hinadan itself, for the dolls, as well as being served to the participants:
Amazake, tho’ translated as “sweet sake,” is not a true brewed alcoholic drink.  It’s made by infusing cooked white rice with koji, the mold spores used to make soy sauce, miso and natto.  As when making yogurt, the mixture is kept at a slightly elevated temperature overnight or so to get the mold to incubate and break down the rice.  You can make it yourself, but I never bothered. Now I see it in health food stores, but it’s made with brown rice (so it’s macrobiotic!) and has different flavorants that make it quite a bit different from what little girls in Japan get for the holiday.  Try looking for it in the refrigerated or frozen section of a Japanese grocery.  Check the Web for recipes.

Hishimochi. Time was you ordered the hishimochi from a mochiya or Japanese confectionery.  It's made from pounded steamed mochigome that’s colored and layered, and you CAN eat it, but it tends to get dry and not look too appetizing after it sits on the stand for a couple of days. After the mochiya closed, I made my own by making a recipe of chichi dango, layering different tinted batches in a square cake pan.
Chichi Dango to make hishimochi: Mix 1 1-lb. box of mochiko (powdered mochigome) w 1 ½ c. sugar and 1 ½ c. water. until smooth.  Separate into three parts and color one pink, another green, and leave one plain.  Sprinkle each batch with salt and put in separate dish towels.  Steam about 30 minutes.  Knead when cool enough to handle until it’s smooth. Then pour the batches in layers, green then white then pink, into an 8- or 9-in. square cake pan liberally dusted with katakuriko (potato starch) or corn starch.  Cut into diamonds when cooled with a knife that’s dusted with katakuriko as it’s very sticky.  The green layer in Japan contains yomogi or mugwort, a plant with purported medicinal properties.  You can buy it powdered if you want to be more authentic.   Once it’s ready, a couple of diamonds go goes on the stands on the hinadan, the remainder gets served.
Traditional menu items:

Hamaguri ushio-jiru. Clam soup. The clams need to be live and really fresh or the results are disappointing, i.e., murky and strong-tasting, at best.  The soup always contains a set of clam shells that MUST still be joined together, since they represent the strong bond between a husband and wife.  After all, the holiday is supposed to help teach little girls proper etiquette and encourage them to become good wives these days, now that the purification ritual aspects have been buried for the most part. Here is a recipe from About.com: http://japanesefood.about.com/od/soup/r/clamsoup.htm

Chirashizushi. "Scattered sushi." There are a myriad of recipes for chirashizushi, and here is the one from About.com: http://japanesefood.about.com/od/sushi/r/hinachirashi.htm --but there are many variations. You can use all sorts of cooked minced vegetables and seafood, like tiny pink shrimp or chopped larger shimp, or chopped crab or even slices of fish cake called kamaboku, either cut into thin strips or flower shapes with a vegetable stamp.  The sushi rice is mixed with the other ingredients.  To serve, it’s lightly packed into a rice bowl and then inverted onto individual plates for each guest.  Each is topped with threads of omelet along with black seaweed (nori) that’s been cut into very narrow strips.  The eggs should be paper-thin omelets that are finely shredded.

Another favorite item to include is onigarayaki, or shrimp skewered and marinated in a sweet teriyaki-like sauce and then broiled.  They are served still on the skewers.

I used to make little baskets from oranges per a recipe from a Japanese cookbook published in the 50’s  You cut two wedges from the top of the orange to leave a ½” strip for the handle across the top.  Remove the flesh of the orange, cut the segments into pieces.  Toss with pieces with orange-flavored kanten (a Japanese kind of jello) cut into flower shapes, or use finger jello, and refill the cups.  The kids thought these were cool.

Substitutions for American girls and their friends:
It sounds like a lot of work and an elaborate meal can be.  But it can also be simplified.  However much work, it’s worth the effort.  It strengthens the cultural roots and our girls, even as adults, begin to look for certain foods in early March even if the dolls don’t make it out of the box every year.