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Are you hungry and unlucky? The festive sushi Ehomaki is here to help

A girl is about to have a bite of Ehomaki, a special sushi eaten on the 3rd of February in Japan Source: Kinakomochi

A special Japanese sushi roll that promises to bring luck and satisfy the taste buds, "Ehomaki" is usually enjoyed in early February as part of "Setsubun" festival, which marks the arrival of spring.

In Japan, Ehomaki sushi rolls are specifically made to be enjoyed on Setsubun day, the day before the official beginning of spring. 

Another Setsubun ritual is the "bean-throwing" party, performed to bring in fortune and drive off demons. 

Having both the traditional bean-throwing party and the rather modern custom of Ehomaki have become the core of the annual Japanese festival.

Ehomaki
Japanese Ehomaki roll (right) and dried beans for Setsubun festival in Japan
six cube

What makes it lucky?

The word Ehomaki consists of two parts, "Eho-" meaning "the lucky direction" and "-maki" meaning "roll". 

“The biggest difference between Ehomaki and regular sushi rolls, is whether it’s been cut or not," explains Hiroyuki Nagashima, a Sydney-based Japanese sushi chef.

“For this occasion, sometimes chefs avoid cutting the rolled sushi in order to retain its fortune as much as possible...Other than that, there is no big difference actually.  Making Ehomaki is as simple as standard sushi rolls,” Hiroyuki says.

When eating Ehomaki, you have to face a particular "Eho" or the lucky direction of the year, which changes every year according to a five year cycle. The 2020 lucky direction is "west-southwest". When the lucky direction is set, you're supposed to make a wish, eat the Ehomaki in one go and in complete silence.  

ehomaki
Japanese students in Sydney enjoying Ehomaki, a special rolled sushi, to celebrate Setsubun, the first day of spring
epis Education Centre Sydney School (Facebook)
Humble soul-food in Kansai became a national tradition

The Ehomaki tradition originated as a marketing campaign by a convenience store chain in the 1990s.

“Ehomaki used to be simply called Makizushi (sushi roll) in Kansai region, which is a popular soul food there,”   Hiroyuki explains.  Then, one of the biggest convenience store chains saw the business opportunity in Makizushi and started selling it nationwide with a new name Ehomaki. Ehomaki was a big hit in the 2000s, and since then it has become a part of national Setsubun tradition .

According to Hiroyuki, Ehomaki's ingredients include "kanpyo" (dried gourd), "koyadofu" (frozen-dried tofu), and "mitsuba" parsley.  Rice is seasoned with sushi vinegar a bit stronger than the regular Tokyo style "nigirizushi" (hand-formed sushi with a seafood topping).

“Different from Tokyo style which people enjoy for its freshness,  Kansai sushi is made to last,” Hiroyuki says. “So we use more sugar for Kansai style sushi including Ehomaki.  That doesn’t mean that people in Kansai have a sweet tooth.  Sugar keeps sushi nice and soft even after a little while.”

“You can make Ehomaki at home.  Mitsuba parsley can be replaced by coriander.  Please remember that the rice should be a bit tougher, so cook it with 10 per cent less water, add a bit extra sushi vinegar and don’t start rolling when the rice is still hot,” Hiroyuki advises. 

ehomaki
Sydney-based sushi chef Hiroyuku Nagashima and his three different Ehomaki
Hiroyuki Nagashima

Showcasing Kansai sushi style through Ehomaki

Hiroyuki has had sushi training in both Tokyo and Osaka, and learnt both styles before moving to Sydney in 1990.  He started taking orders for Ehomaki 10 years ago at his Kansai style sushi restaurant Komaru, located in Sydney's Neutral Bay. 

“If you say sushi here, the Tokyo style 'nigirizushi' is so dominant. I wanted to let people in Sydney know that there is a wide variety of sushi styles in Japan, and we enjoy different styles according to the seasons and occasions. That’s why I started making Ehomaki in Sydney,” Hiroyuki says.

The number of Ehomaki orders has grown over the years, from 10 rolls for the first year to around 80 rolls last year.  It’s still a small portion of his business which offers both Tokyo and Osaka style sushi, but Hiroyuki hopes that Ehomaki would be a starting point and help people to understand more about the rich sushi culture in Japan.

Evolution and a problem of Ehomaki

Ehomaki has evolved at high speed in Japan. Now, it is not only offered at major sushi chains and local sushi restaurants, but also at western cuisine restaurants and cake shops have all started selling different kinds of Ehomaki-inspired menus. There are also Ehomaki inspired chips, doughnuts, rolled cakes and other snacks.

Keyakizaka, a renowned teppanyaki restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, has an Ehomaki style menu using thin wagyu (beef) slices, which is only on offer for a limited time.

ehomaki menu
Ehomaki-inspired gourmet menu at Keyakizaka restaurant. For a limited time only.
Keyakizaka

The franchise Subway is selling Eho-Sub, a sandwich that looks like Ehomaki, for a limited time too.  It’s a foot-long sandwich with a slightly cheaper price. They also say that Eho-Sub is more "eco-friendly" than a regular Ehomaki as the sandwich is prepared after receiving an order.

The dark side of Ehomaki

Ehomaki has a dark side though, and that is a huge amount of food waste. 

As its popularity grows, more and more stores, including a large number of convenient stores started stocking a pre-made Ehomaki en masse. Because Ehomaki is supposed to be eaten on the 3rd of February, after that date all leftovers are destined for the rubbish-bin, even though they are still edible.

In January, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries asked the industry to reduce food waste caused by the annual Ehomaki craze.  Twenty six businesses including major convenience store chains and supermarkets agreed to reduce the waste by introducing pre-order model or making the size of Ehomaki smaller.

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