I spent my first Christmas Eve in Japan eating hand-rolled sushi and sipping sweet sparkling wine. Oh, and I had a slice of the obligatory Christmas Cake…a cloyingly sweet concoction of generic sponge cake smeared with whipped “cream” and adorned with winter strawberries. At least we didn’t have the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken that many Japanese eat on Christmas Eve (instead of turkey?). The family I was visiting knew me better.
They knew that my love of sushi had inspired me to want to learn Japanese, thus propelling me to Japan the summer of 1988. My friend prepared a large platter of freshly cut sashimi, along with some other garnishes that I have forgotten (shiso leaves, daikon sprouts, green onion?). She had flavored some hot white rice with vinegar, a little sugar and a touch of salt and had snipped nori sheets into quarters. Each person grabbed a quarter piece of nori, slapped on some rice (with a dab of wasabi), laid a slice or so of sashimi across the rice, maybe some green onion, rolled it and munched it down (after dipping a corner in soy sauce). This is called temaki-zushi and is the most cost-efficient way to enjoy good quality sushi. It was the first time that I could eat as much sushi as I wanted without worrying about the bill. I was captivated.
But it still seemed a tad odd to eat sushi on Christmas Eve. The next day was Christmas, yet not one person uttered the words, “Merry Christmas.” I ate breakfast with my friend and her two children (the husband had already left for work), and made my way back to my train feeling deflated. Was that all there was to Christmas in Japan? Walking through the train station building, the department stores were still madly hawking Christmas wares, eking out the last bit of revenue they could. It was December 25, business as usual—people walking busily through the station, no feeling of Christmas to be had. The desolation that overwhelmed me was palpable and it was that day that I stumbled into the realization that I was culturally a Christian, despite being brought up as an atheist. This realization took a few weeks to set in, but the trigger was that empty Christmas Day twenty-three years ago.
The next year, Tadaaki and I got married right before Christmas. We went to midnight mass at Saints Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square in San Francisco, and spent Christmas Day at my sister Pam’s house in Gilroy with family. Then left for Puerto Vallarta.
I always looked at Christmas Eve as the dress rehearsal for Christmas. Despite my newly found spiritual leanings, for me Christmas and Christmas Eve are all about the food and the gathering of friends and family. Some years have been harder than others (deaths or births coinciding), but I’ve managed to keep both traditions alive here in the Japanese countryside. No Kentucky Fried, no Christmas Cake, no sweet sparkling wine.
For the last 21 years I have invited Tadaaki’s closest high school friends and their families for a late afternoon Christmas Eve dinner. We have skipped a few (because of deaths or births), but not many. Though now our family celebrates on December 23, not December 24. I thought it heresy when one of the friends suggested changing the date because he had to work on the 24th (the 23rd is a national holiday). “You can’t change the date of Christmas Eve…then it won’t be Christmas Eve!” I shot at my husband (a long-suffering cultural buffer between me and some of the more crazy-making Japanese customs).
Then I stopped a beat and considered. Christmas Eve on December 23…hmmm…what a great concept! Moving the date would give me an extra day in between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to clean up the previous dinner and cook the next. Hah. Moving the date removed a huge weight from my being and an incredible feeling of relief washed over me. I could move the date because I lived in Japan, because I was the one making the holiday happen. What once sometimes seemed like an overwhelming responsibility (to be solely in charge of creating a holiday feeling in a non-Christian country whose idea of Christmas is comprised of made up “traditions” like eating fried chicken and mass-produced, gooey cake on Christmas Eve), no longer binded me. Many people think of Japan as a restrictive society. I’ll go along with that, but if you pop out of the circle and walk your own path, you may get a little flak at first, yet pretty quickly people give up and let you be.
We usually eat duck on Christmas because we have ducks on our farm. And we always have gougères and small producer champagne from France or the U.S. Gougères and champagne are the one constants in our holiday meals, for I do not like feeling constrained into a boring repetition of obligatory holiday dishes. But then, I don’t like feeling constrained into anything, and that is why I feel so free here on the farm in Japan. Nobody thinks I’m an oddball for only eating what we or our friends produce, because nobody notices. I am already an oddball because of my blond hair, and most people don’t look much further than that. And so I go about my life quietly, making my own choices, no recriminations, no comments. It’s an odd kind of life, but one that suits me. I no longer crave the battles that we Americans so love to wage. And now it is my husband who gets energy from a good knock-down-drag-out. Funny, how life goes in a circle. For in some (small) ways, I have become more Japanese than he.
This recipe is from one of my favorite cookbooks, Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking. My copy of the book (an early one) has thick deckle-edged pages and a convenient flap-style cover for marking your place. The recipes include such gems as pan bagnat and salade frisée as well as overlooked classics like blanquette d’agneau and pot-au-feu.
½ teaspoon salt
¼ pound (120 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup minus 1½ tablespoons (130 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
¾ cup (60 g) grated Gruyère cheese
Preheat the oven to 425˚F (220˚C) and rub butter on 2 large cookie sheets.
Measure the flour into a medium-sized bowl and whisk to break up any lumps and lighten.
Bring 1 cup (250 cc) of cold water to a boil over medium-high heat with the salt and butter in a medium-sized heavy saucepan (preferably enameled cast iron). Remove the pan from the heat and add all of the flour, stirring quickly and strongly to form a smooth ball without flour lumps.
Replace the pan on the heat and cook the dough over medium-high heat, again stirring quickly and strongly. Try to smash the dough across the bottom of the pan to help cook the flour and dry out the dough a little. This should only take a few minutes depending on how much dough you are working with. You should see some whitening in places indicating that the flour is cooking.
Remove from the heat and add two of the eggs and half of the grated Gruyère. Beat on medium speed until the eggs are emulsified then add the other two eggs. Beat until all of the eggs are completely incorporated into the smooth dough.
Spoon heaping soupspoons of dough onto the buttered cookie sheets—leaving enough space to puff up (maximum about 12 to 15 per tray if you are making multiple batches). Sprinkle with the remaining half of the Gruyère cheese.
Bake in the middle of the oven for about 25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve immediately on a pretty plate lined with a piece of attractive cooking paper artfully folded in half (to absorb the steam).