Sekihan (glutinous rice steamed with red adzuki beans for eating on celebratory occasions) (赤飯)

"Sekihan" means glutinous rice steamed with red adzuki beans or black-eyed peas at the rate of 10 to 20 percent of the total. It's a kind of "kowa-meshi" or "okowa" ("steamed glutinous rice" for both) that is eaten mostly in Japan. Until around the Meiji period, pure white steamed glutinous rice was called "okowa" and was distinguished from "sekihan," which contains red adzuki beans or other ingredients, though today "sekihan" is included in the category of okowa. Besides being steamed, it may also be boiled.

Although red adzuki beans are better for eating than black-eyed peas, the former could be regarded as inauspicious since it might easily crack in body (or peel), which would remind one of seppuku (suicide by disembowelment), so that black-eyed peas may be used instead of adzuki beans, especially in the Kanto region. In addition to adzuki beans and black-eyed peas, sugar is commonly used to sweeten sekihan rice, the custom of which is practiced in some areas including Yamanashi Prefecture, the northern Tohoku region such as the Tsugaru area of Aomori Prefecture and the northern area of Iwate Prefecture, and in Hokkaido, where many people from the above areas now live. In Hokkaido, sweetened red kidney beans are often used instead of red adzuki beans and black-eyed peas. Moreover, hanamame (a kind of kidney beans) are used in the region of the Saku basin in Nagano Prefecture. Further, a different type of steamed rice called "shoyu-sekihan" (literally, "sekihan rice seasoned by shoyu or soy bean sauce") is eaten in Niigata Prefecture. Although this name pertains to "sekihan," it's not as reddish as the usual sekihan rice but is instead somewhat brownish, resembling gomoku-okowa (glutinous rice steamed with various vegetables or fish). Previously, it was called "shoyu-okowa" ("steamed glutinous rice seasoned by soy sauce)."

When eating sekihan rice, people sprinkle onto it some gomashio (salt with sesame) containing unprocessed sesame seeds instead of the usually cut and parched ones, because the act of cutting or parching is regarded as ominous. In Hokkaido, thin shreds of beni-shoga (red pickled ginger) are added as a relish.

Though sekihan is generally served on festive occasions, it's not limited to celebrations but is also offered on unfortunate incidents (including Buddhist services for the dead) in some regions.

How to Make Sekihan

Officially, only glutinous rice is used for steaming, but in the case of boiling nonglutinous rice is mixed at the rate of ten to twenty percent of the total, since boiled glutinous rice tends to become too soft and sticky. In advance, parboil the beans or peas. Cool down the red-colored broth of the parboiled beans or peas, and immerse the rice in it in order to make the rice reddish when it's steamed or boiled. As the broth cools down, scoop it up and pour it back repeatedly so that its colors will emerge through contact with the air and the oxidization of its ingredients. In order to produce bright colors on sekihan, red food coloring is occasionally used.

The Origin of Sekihan

Since ancient times, the red color has been believed to have the power to purge evil spirits. For example, a quantity of cinnabar would be used for such "witching" articles as the wall paintings of sepulchers. This belief can also be explained by the legend of ninuriya (red arrows), the mythological origin of hamaya (ritual arrows to drive away devils), as told in the myths about the births of the ancient god and goddess, Kamowake-ikazuchi-no-mikoto and Himetatarai-sukeyori-hime. Because the Shinto religion was founded on beliefs in the deities of rice cropping, such as Tanokami (a deity of rice fields and harvests), rice has been considered to be a most valuable food. Accordingly, in ancient times people were reportedly accustomed to offering steamed red-kernelled rice to the deity, and even today this custom is practiced by shrines in various regions. On such occasions, it might be assumed that the people could have eaten the rice once it was offered to their deity. Going back to the original point of rice, we find two kinds of rice: Indica and Japonica. While Indica rice is tinged with red, Japonica rice is white. In the late Jomon period, rice of an intermediary kind between the Indica and Japonica types was introduced to Japan, the color of which was similar to that of sekihan. This kind of rice had been eaten by Japanese people before the Edo period. However, the breed improvement achieved through the development of rice-growing techniques brought about a new kind of rice that could easily be produced in larger quantities. Moreover, feudal lords didn't like to take akagome (red-kernelled rice), which was inferior in taste compared to the new breed, and refused to accept it as nengu (an annual land tax). Consequently, akagome was gradually excluded from eating, being considered a weedy rice. It is, however, assumed that the custom of eating red rice survived through the coloring of white rice with red adzuki beans and other available foodstuffs.

The practice of adding sesame seeds ("goma" in Japanese pronunciation) atop sekihan rice is used in order to betray (gomakasu (verb) in Japanese) gods by covering up the act of having turned white rice into red rice. Although sekihan rice is now prepared for fortunate events, in the old days it was eaten in unfortunate incidents (=>"Hare and Ke" (the dichotomy of sacred and profane)). It was then expected to produce the effect of expelling evil sprits.

White rice, which was originally eaten for fortunate events (or in ordinary times), has now come to be eaten in unfortunate incidents, while sekihan rice, which was originally eaten in unfortunate cases, has come to be eaten in fortunate cases. Such inversion is considered to have been achieved in order to change people's luck, though it isn't known when this occurred. People in some regions had the custom of serving sekihan rice in celebration of a girl's first menstruation, but that custom is now going out of fashion.