Mirin and the Japanese New Year – All about “Otoso,” Plus a Mirin Chai Recipe
There are only a few days left in the year, and surely many Japanese households are stocking up on hon mirin to prepare traditional New Year’s feasts. Mirin plays a substantial role in many of the dishes served during a Japanese New Year’s celebration, and it’s also specifically a part of the “otoso” tradition.
Otoso – A wish for good health and fortune for the coming year
Otoso is an alcohol elixir made from various herbs and spices and is imbibed to help usher in good health and fortune for the year to come. The medicinal herbs and other components in the beverage include:
Chinpi, which is said to improve blood circulation
Keihi (cinnamon), which is said to encourage perspiration, may have antifebrile properties, and helps regulate the gut biome
Kikyo (Chinese bellflower), an expectorant, sedative and painkiller in Chinese medicine
Hakkaku (Chinese bellflower), an herbal medicinal spice known for antibacterial and stomach health benefits
Bai Zhu, a plant whose roots are consumed in Chinese medicine
Siler plant, a root known for encouraging perspiration, its antipyretic properties, and anti-inflammatory effects
There are multiple theories on the origin of the word “otoso,” but it carries the meaning of “eliminating the bad and inviting in the good.” During the Japanese New Year’s holiday, otoso is prepared on New Year’s Eve to ensure good health and safety, and is imbibed on New Year’s morning after the New Year’s greetings are made with the family and before the New Year’s festive dishes such as ozoni are served. Dishes are served to family members from the youngest to the oldest. Otoso, similarly, is first imbibed by the youngest (drinking age) members of the family, up to the oldest.
In other cases, the otoso is soaked in local sake, making an elixir wholly unique to the region.
Otoso made with mirin is actually very easy to concoct; just soak the otoso spice mixture in 300ml of mirin for five to eight hours. Sipping the resulting beverage, with its potent but pleasing aroma, one can imagine the drink beckoning good luck and health for the future.
Because of its ceremonial nature, in many cases, a lot of the otoso is leftover from the New Year’s holiday.
For some, it’s become a tradition to make a kind of chai from the leftovers to be enjoyed later.
The spices used for chai are included in the herbal medicine used for otoso, so, with its use of sweet mirin, otoso makes for a great starting point for a unique chai-style drink. Mirin, or mirin syrup, can be used on its own to create this beverage, too.
Otoso mirin chai
- 150g water
- 2 to 3 slices of ginger
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 3 tablespoons mirin or mirin syrup
- 2 tea bags of black tea
- 150 ml milk, whole or non-fat
- Cinnamon powder to taste
- If making with mirin or mirin syrup: 2 to 3 cardamom grains plus 2 to 3 cloves
3. Add milk and turn off the heat just before the ingredients reach a boil again.
This is a no-added-sugar drink that will make your body warm and, so it’s said, help to ward off evil and bad luck.
Cheers to a happy New Year!