Friday, December 30, 2011

O-toso Sake For The New Year

Raise a sakazuki of o-toso and toast Oshogatsu, the New Year.

About 130 years ago, after adopting the Gregorian calendar, Japan began celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1. One of the numerous Japanese customs surrounding this holiday involves sharing glasses of o-toso, a special herbal steeped sake. The term "toso" literally means “to kill or defeat an evil spirit.”  O-toso is supposed to protect people from disease and promote long life, defeating the "evil spirits" which might harm someone. And you don't necessarily even have to drink it to garner its positive benefits. There is an old saying that if a single family member drinks some o-toso, then everyone in that family will be protected against illness. That sounds good but can be even better, for if every family member drinks some o-toso, then their entire village will be protected against illness. So the more people drinking o-toso the better it is for all.

Like sake itself, o-toso originated in China, sometime between the 2nd and 3rd centuries. A famous Chinese physician, Dr. Hua Tuo, who was skilled in surgery, anesthesia, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, is thought to be the inventor of o-toso. Hua added a special mixture of herbs to some sake to create an herbal medicine, o-toso. That was not his only alcohol-related invention for he also created another concoction called mafeisan ("cannabis boiling powder"), which was an  anesthetic and created through mixing herbs with alcohol, maybe also sake.

It would not be until around the 9th century that o-toso started being being found in Japan and it was first only available to the nobility. Over time, it would slowly spread to the common people as well, which makes sense considering the history of sake during those centuries. It appears that o-toso first became associated with the New Year during the Edo period, when pharmacies started giving out the o-toso herb mixture, called tososan, to their patients as an o-seibo, a year-end gift. At home, the patients could soak the tososan in some sake, and then drink the sake, hoping that it would give them good health in the New Year.

It is thought that the original tososan mixture consisted of eight herbs, including cinnamon bark, rhubarb, sanshou (Japanese pepper), and less common items like kikyou (platycodi radix) and okera (atractylodis rhizome). This mixture has changed over time, and it is now common to find tososan in Japan made from apiaceae, asiasari radix, atractylodes Japonica, Chinese bellflowercinnamon, dried ginger, rhubarb and sanshou. You will also find other mixtures using a different combination of herbs. In Japan, there are numerous stores where you can purchase the tososan mixture to take home and mix into your sake. In the U.S., it is tougher to find, but you can find it at some Japanese grocery stores.

Different regions of Japan have developed their own o-toso drinking rituals, but one form seems to have become most dominant. There are supposed to be three o-toso cups, which resemble sakazuki, and they are of different sizes, so that they stack well together, one atop the other. The o-toso is poured from a vessel resembling a teapot and you are supposed to drink, while facing east, from the smallest cup to the largest.

There is some variation as to who drinks first in the household. In some regions of Japan, the head of the household will drink first while in other regions, the youngest member of the family will drink first, ending with the oldest member. It is felt that this progression will assist in passing youth onto the older members, though there may be a darker reason as well. There is allegedly an ancient Chinese tradition that young people would test drinks for their elders, to determine if the drink contained poison or not. So, if the o-toso were poisoned, you would not lose one of the revered elders.

In another older tradition, there appears to be different types of o-toso, though I had difficulty finding detailed information on these other types. The first, and smallest cup, is made with the usual tososan mixture but the second and third cups are prepared instead with mixtures called byakusan and toshōsan. Byakusan may be made with herbs and bits of meat and it is unclear what toshōsan contains. It seems that over time, the custom has become simpler, using only the tososan.

So raise a glass of o-toso and say "Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu." (Happy New Year!)

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