Today my mother turns 80 years old. In Japan, traditionally, after age 60, these longevity celebrations called choju occur every 10 years. For year 80, it's called the sanju celebration and then there's a special one at age 88 called beiju. The number 8 is very auspicious in Japan and China, where many of these traditions originate. Thus, 88 is especially auspicious. I still remember my grandparents' beiju celebration in Hawaii. Probably because it was such a huge party (my father came from a family of 8 siblings), but most likely it was because the kaleidoscopic image of us, the entire Chinen clan clad in identical bright avocado green shirts and muu muus patterned with big, fat white hibiscus flowers -it was the 70s after all- that it is permanently etched in my brain.
For my mom, Peter and I decided to do something a bit more sedate. We took her to Chinzanso, famous for their beautiful gardens, to have a special kaiseki lunch last weekend while her granddaughter was still in town for the winter holidays and her niece was back from visiting family. Some aspect of the food in each course symbolized longevity such as the cucumber cut into the shape of bamboo, snapper sashimi arranged beautifully with chrysanthemums or braised vegetables cut into the shapes of a turtle and a crane. And of course, the must-have at these celebratory events, sekihan (steamed sticky mochi rice with red beans), which is my mother's favorite. Supposedly, you should serve this to your daughter when she becomes a woman as it is a milestone. But I didn't for my daughter, one because it's not her favorite food, and two because it does seem rather too apropos to serve something in that color for that particular occasion. But I digress; I should be saying that we should be happy that we are women and should rejoice in that when we live this long.
So in celebration of women and especially my mother today, I am making sekihan. This is for you, mom. Thank you for surviving World War II and the atomic bomb in Hiroshima; for marrying my father and moving to Hawaii and taking care of in-laws who were difficult at times; for working your fingers to the bone in hotel housekeeping while Dad worked two jobs to put me through private school; for being happy for me when I introduced Peter to you for the first time; for helping to look after our daughter when I was working; and for being you, ever cheerful, ever lively, even now.
Happy Sanju Birthday!
Makes about 10 servings
1 kg uncooked mochi rice
200 g dried red beans (sasage or azuki beans)
Black sesame seeds
Rinse the mochi rice. Add enough water to generously cover all the rice and soak overnight.
The next day, rinse the beans. In a pot, add about triple the amount of water to beans and soak the beans for about 2 hours. (If you don’t have time, you can skip this step).
Bring the beans to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer for about 30-40 minutes, until the beans are tender and cooked through. Drain the beans but keep the liquid, which will be used to moisten and add color to the rice. (I did this step the day before and after cooling the beans and cooking liquid, I transferred them to a covered container and refrigerated overnight. The next day when you're ready to cook the rice, separate the liquid and the beans, reserving the liquid in a separate container.)
Drain the mochi rice. Add the rice to the reserved bean liquid. Add water if the rice is not covered by liquid. Leave to soak for about 2 hours. This will add the reddish tinge to the rice. Drain the rice, but again keep the liquid.
In a steamer lined with cheesecloth, add the drained rice and beans. Cover and steam on high heat for about 40 minutes to 1 hour. Every 10 minutes or so, open the steamer lid and sprinkle some of the reserved bean liquid over the rice. My bamboo steamer was not big enough (24cm or 9.5 in) to accommodate the entire amount of rice and beans so I had to do the steaming part twice. The rice is done when it is soft, a bit translucent, and not hard in the center.
Garnish with black sesame seeds and salt.