Setsubun is a unique and traditional Japanese event that is still celebrated nowadays. On the day of Setsubun, we not only eat Ehoumaki roll sushi, we also throw roasted soybeans to an ogre, eat as many beans as you are old plus one, and decorate the entrance of our houses with a grilled Iwashi (sardine) head and Hiiragi (holly) leaves.
Sounds crazy, right!
Find out about the background to this traditional practice below, which is all done to wish good health for the upcoming year. I will introduce you to when & how we celebrate, what we put into the sushi, how to roll and cut sushi.
When do we celebrate?
We celebrate Setsubun before the Risshun day, which is the beginning of spring based on the Japanese lunar calendar. There is no fixed date for Risshun, but it’s around the 2nd to 4th of February. Mostly it has been held on the 3rd of February for the last 30 years, but last year it was on the 2nd. Even though it’s based on what is called Japanese lunar old calendar, the date actually depends on the position of the earth and the sun.
How do we wish and get rid of bad luck?
We eat the Ehoumaki roll sushi in the most lucky direction of the year, wishing for our dreams and without talking. This year the direction is North-Northwest. We normally eat roll sushi without cutting it into slices. People believed that cutting means “cutting the fate”. However, the reason why I cut my Ehoumaki is because I put some seafood in it. It’s sometimes hard to bite it off from a whole roll. So I considered the best way to eat and decorate it nicely.
Why do we decorate with Iwashi (sardine) head and Hiiragi (holly) leaves at the house entrance?
When we grill Iwashi, it generates lots of smoke and a strong smell. This helps to ward off the evil ogres from Japanese mythology, called Oni. The Hiiragi leaves have a sharp edge and were used by our ancestors as a talisman to protect against evil spirits. Combining Iwashi head and Hiiragi leaves makes the strongest weapon to get rid of ogres. My grandparents used to take care of preparing Iwashi and Hiiragi at the entrance when I was living in Japan.
Why do we throw roasted beans and eat the same number of them as your age plus one?
This is a ritual that serves to prevent illnesses and disasters that tend to occur at the turn of the season. When we throw the beans we say: Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi. This means: Bad luck out, Good luck in. When I was a kid in Japan, we made an ogre mask for my dad to put on and pretend to be the Oni, and we threw the beans at him. We also threw them into our garden and into our rooms. The next day my dog was finding and eating them - which was fine! That was efficient and good luck for him. The beans that we throw are different from the beans that we eat. The ones that we eat on Setsubun are coated with soy sauce flavor and sprinkled with seaweed. I loved that salty taste. We eat these roasted beans to wish for another year to stay healthy. I often helped my grandparents eat their beans because, of course, they had lots of them to eat to match their age. Mine were always gone quickly.
Which ingredients are common inside the original Ehoumaki?
There are 7 ingredients: eel, prawn, Kanpyo dried gourd shavings, shiitake, cucumber, dashimaki egg and sakura denbu fish. This stems from the 7 gods of fortune. Eating those 7 specific ingredients brings good luck, no illness, prosperity for business, etc. Unfortunately, it was hard to get all these ingredients on the Gold Coast here in Australia, so I made my favorite seafood roll sushi instead.
How to roll sushi?
I used to work at a sushi shop when I first moved to Australia. Every morning, I rolled and cut over 60 sushi rolls, so I became a kind of master of rolling sushi! I will give you some tips to make a beautiful and tasty sushi roll.
First, prepare your favorite ingredients that you want to fill your roll with. Cut the ingredients into strips so that you can line them up along the length of the seaweed sheet.
Wrap the cling-wrap around the Makisu (bamboo mat), this keeps the Makisu clean and prevents it from sticking to the rice.
Prepare cooked rice by mixing it with sushi vinegar well. Make sure the rice is at room temperature before spreading it on the seaweed sheet. Since we’ll place raw fish on it, we don’t want the rice to warm up the fish.
Place the seaweed sheet on top of the Makisu edge in front of you.
Spread rice equally on top of the seaweed, but leave a 5cm space at the top edge.
Place your favorite ingredients on the rice, starting from the edge close to you up to half of the seaweed sheet.
Start rolling up the Makisu from the edge closest to you, making sure that you gently press down while rolling in order to keep the ingredients together. Once the rolled-up edge meets the rice, lift the Makisu and continue rolling and pressing until the roll is completely closed. Reset the Makisu and keep one hand firmly on the rolled part of the Makisu and with the other hand pull the Makisu away. Then place both hands on the rolled Makisu again and move them from left to right along the Makisu to create a square or round shape evenly. Have a look at the video on this page to see the technique in action.
How to cut?
Make your knife wet before you cut, this makes it easier to cut the roll without ripping the seaweed sheet or squeezing the ingredients out the side. If you’re a beginner, you can prepare a clean wet towel and after every cut wipe the knife clean. That way the rice doesn’t stick to the knife and keeps your roll beautiful.
If you’re keen to learn how to make roll sushi, I offer a Hand Roll Sushi Class where you can learn three different kinds of roll sushi. Click here to find out more!