Chef Satoshi Iida talks about the season when the call of the pheasant is first heard, kiji-hajimete-naku 雉始鳴, and provides his recipe for steamed duck.
On January 18th, at Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine in the city of Yawata in Kyoto prefecture, they celebrate the festival Aoyamasai, and on January 19th, they celebrate Shōnōsai. Aoyamasai, in the Heian era, was an event to prevent the demon Ekijin from entering Kyoto. Prayers are chanted in front of the kami altar which is adorned with sakaki branches from Aoyama, in order to trap the demon. Because the ritual is held late at night, it is also known as Kurayamisai – Festival of Darkness. In the Shōnōsai ritual, the supplicants write their name and age onto a stick that is then burned in the sacred fire, in order to pray for protection from illness and maintain good health in the coming year as well as purification from all defilement.
My recommendation for this season is “steamed duck.” At first, the degree of steaming required is difficult to calculate, but don’t be afraid to try this at home.
Firstly, purchase fresh duck breast meat. Because wild mallard ducks have an unpleasant aroma, it is best to buy aigamo 合鴨, which is a cross between a mallard and domestic duck. Trim the excess meat and fat from the breasts and remove the thin skin. Holding about 10 bamboo skewers in a bunch in your fist, prick the skin surface of the duck multiple times with the skewers. Next, place the duck, skin side down in a fry pan and fry just until the skin turns golden brown. Quickly rinse the duck with boiling water to remove the excess fat, then place the duck into a pot or baking dish.
Mix sake and mirin in a saucepan and boil to reduce, add soy sauce to season. Pour this mixture over the duck, add chopped shinobu 荵 (davallia fern) and slices of ginger, seal with a lid, then place the dish in a steamer and steam for 15~18 minutes. Because the amount of steaming required depends on the thickness of the duck meat and the intensity of the steam, push the meat with your fingertip and if it still feels soft like raw meat in the middle, then steam it a little longer. But be careful not to cook it too long or else the meat will be too tough.
When you’ve steamed the duck, take it out of the broth and pierce the edge of the duck with a skewer and some blood should still come out. Return the duck to the broth and let it cool overnight in the refrigerator. The flavor of the meat will permeate the broth and a layer of fat will form on the surface. Carefully remove this layer of fat.
Duck that has been steamed exactly right will be deliciously tender with a beautiful rose pink color. Some people prefer not to eat the skin of the duck; however, because duck fat actually lowers cholesterol, please don’t hesitate to eat the skin. Serve garnished with plain or seeded mustard.
In Kyoto, as in the rest of Japan, seasonality is fundamental to cuisine. The year is traditionally divided not just into the familiar four seasons, but into 24 seasons, which is further broken down to 72 mini-seasons of about 5 days each. This is a translation from Chef Iida’s book about the 72 seasons of the year and the foods that he recommends to accompany those seasons.
Source: 『京都料理七十に候』 by 飯田 知史, page 14