Zoni is a soup dish which contains mochi (rice cakes) and other ingredients, and it is usually eaten in the New Year.
There are two opposing views about the origin of zoni: the viewpoint of historians and the viewpoint of folklorists. This issue has not been settled yet, because the history of New Year's dishes has been insufficiently studied.
Viewpoint of the historians
It is considered to have been a dish of the samurai world prepared in battle fields by simmering mochi, vegetables, and dried foods in a pot. The custom of eating mochi dishes in the New Year has been associated with the ceremony of 'Hagatame' (strengthening teeth) since ancient times, and this is considered to have given rise to zoni. Zoni was initially called hozo (烹雑). The word 'zoni' first appeared in "Suzukake-ki" (Journal of the Suzuka family) written in the Muromachi period.
This dish probably became one of the rituals in the samurai world, and later spread among common people. Considering the fact that zoni is first served in the course of honzen ryori (a formally arranged dinner), it was probably an essential dish for banquets for welcoming guests in the samurai world.
In the Edo period, zoni of samurai families in Owari Domain and other domains of Tokai region contained only mochi and a type of brassica rapa (a kind of Chinese cabbage) called mochina.
It is said to have been a practice of picking up mochi and a piece of vegetable together to eat, which was for good luck with a pun: 'mochi ageru' (raise a mochi = win), and 'na' (vegetable, or 'name' in Japanese) to make it 'win one's name.'
Viewpoint of folklorists
In response to this, folklorists present a theory that strongly contradicts those mentioned above. This theory argues that zoni (without mochi) was one of the ritual dishes of the New Year among common people, and zoni containing mochi as essential ingredients was eaten only in the Kinai region (provinces surrounding Kyoto and Nara) before the early-modern times, and since then it has spread across the country.
A day was thought to begin at dusk in old times; and the New Year's Day was thought to begin at the dusk of New Year's Eve. Mochi and cooked rice were placed on the altars of deities as offerings in the evening of New Year's Eve, and they were taken down before dawn the next day and simmered with other ingredients to prepare a soup, which is believed to have been the origin of zoni.
It is also pointed out that, so called 'mochinashi shogatsu' (New Year days without mochi), a custom that made it taboo to offer mochi to deities or to eat them within the first three days of New Year, was widely practiced in farming regions before the early-modern times. The Kanto region, the Chubu region, the Chugoku region, and Shikoku region included these dry fields, where people cultivated fields or practiced slash and burn techniques for products other than rice, because those lands had not been suited for rice paddies in those days. In these regions, rice and mochi were foreign foods which their fields did not produce, so it is considered to have been a taboo to use these foreign foods at those sacred rituals to pray for the fertility of their lands. In these regions, indigenous products, such as buckwheat noodles or taro are thought to have been offered to the deities and these ingredients were probably used to prepare zoni. Those rural areas where 'zoni without mochi' is made today are thought to have been part of the regions that had this taboo. Eating mochi in the New Year is considered to have become a custom in more recent years in the regions of Tohoku and Kyushu, so zoni containing mochi as a main ingredient was eaten only in the Kinai region and other rural rice-producing areas.
It is argued that the reasons why zoni containing mochi became more common than zoni without mochi throughout the country include, not only the development of traffic and communication means, but also the transformation of these non-rice regions to rice-producing areas through the development of irrigation facilities and new rice paddies; and this was promoted through political and economic pressure on those farming regions to produce rice during the period of the Shogunate system based on the kokudaka system (tax system based on rice, measured by reference to the rated annual yield of the domain).
The typical ingredients are: Mochi, chicken fillets or chicken dumplings; greens (komatsuna, Japanese honewort, or spinach); boiled fish paste or carrots for color; and citron for flavor.
Every region has its own recipe for zoni. Special local products unique to each region are used. For example, in the north-eastern region of Chiba Prefecture, people eat zoni made with baked square mochi and strong soy-sauce soup sprinkled with 'Habanori no furikake' (dried and parched laver seaweed) (sometimes shaved bonito is mixed into it also). Zoni unique to the Nagoya area in Aichi Prefecture contains mochi, a type of brassica rapa called 'mochina' (also called 'shogatsuna') with a soy-sauce soup sprinkled with shaved bonito, and in Toyama Prefecture fish or boiled fish paste is also added. In some areas of Shimane Prefecture and Tottori Prefecture, zoni is a soup with mochi and azuki beans which are usually used for making shiruko (sweet red-bean soup with pieces of mochi) or zenzai (baked mochi with red bean sauce).
In Shimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture, there is a dish called guzoni which is enjoyed throughout the year regardless of the seasons or practices. Also, some coffee shops and tea parlors serve zoni as a light meal.
In Okinawa Prefecture, where the practice of eating rice had not begun until modern times as rice was not produced there due to the climate, there is still no custom of eating zoni today; while zoni is relatively popular in the Amami region of Kagoshima Prefecture, which used to belong to the same Ryukyu Kingdom as Okinawa.
Types of soup stock
The soup stock of zoni differs from region to region. For example, kelp, shaved bonito, or boiled-dried anchovy is used in the Inland Sea coastal regions, and dried squid in the north area of Okayama Prefecture.
Types of soup
There are different varieties of zoni soups from region to region. A clear soup is common in Eastern Japan and in Kyushu while a white miso soup is popular in the Kansai region.
Mugi (barley) miso (bean paste)
Kome (rice) miso
Types of mochi
Each region has its own shapes and sizes of mochi for zoni. Typically, squarely cut mochi (kakumochi) are used in Eastern Japan except for Hokkaido; round mochi are used in West Japan. Roughly speaking, usually square mochi are used in the prefectures of Niigata, Nagano, Gifu, Mie, and areas to the east while either square or round mochi are used in the prefectures of Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui; and in the regions to the west round ones are used. In Hokkaido, some people eat round mochi and others eat square ones, because people migrated to Hokkaido from all over the country and brought various types of zoni there since the Meiji period. There is a slight regional tendency that mochi are baked before being used in zoni in the areas to the east of the geotectonic line of Shizuoka-Itoigawa. the fact that they are not baked in the areas to the west of the line is often mentioned to point out a difference in eating habits between the east and the west in Japan, however, the difference is not so distinctive, because regional variations also exist within each area.
In addition, mochi with sweet red-bean paste are used in some areas such as Kagawa Prefecture or Manabe-shima island in Okayama Prefecture. Mochi for zoni is prepared in two ways: In the Kanto region they are baked to enjoy the smoky aroma before being placed in soup; in the Kansai region and to the west of Kansai they are put into a soup to simmer. The areas with squared mochi are gradually expanding toward the west today. This is probably because mass-produced squared mochi have come to be sold at retailers all over the country thanks to the development of food distribution. In some areas, 'zoni without mochi' contains taro or tofu (bean curd) instead. These types of zoni are made in mountainous areas or in island areas where rice is rarely produced.