By HIKARU ITO, Rafu Contributor
Japanese New Year’s or Oshogatsu is one of the most important holidays in Japan. It is a day with many traditions involving family, reflection, renewal, and, of course, food. Japanese food culture is renowned not only for its quality, but for the rich history, tradition, and meaning behind every dish. Called washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, this food culture was named an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2013.
Washoku encapsulates the traditions of sustainable production and consumption of food, and these values are placed on full display in the preparation and selection of Japanese New Year’s fare known as osechi ryori.
Osechi ryori is said to date back to the Heian period (794 to 1185), and can often be found in beautifully lacquered boxes called jubako. Traditionally, osechi was made the day before as the use of the hearth was taboo, and consisted of simple vegetable dishes.
Today, osechi can be found ready-made from even your local convenience store.
The variety of dishes has also changed over the years with additions from the West to accommodate a wide-variety of tastes. While osechi ryori is easier to purchase than ever before, each dish contained within continues to be both delicious and packed with symbolic meaning.
Whether you prepare them at home or purchase them ready-made, here are a few dishes that you can expect to find in traditional osechi ryori jubako.
Ebi or shrimp is another popular item in osechi meals.Whether included in soups or skewered with a light coat of sauce, ebi adds delicious umami and wishes of longevity. How might a shrimp come to mean longevity, you ask? The curved body and long antennae of the shrimp are similar to that of a hunched-over man with long whiskers, which symbolizes living into old age.
Datemaki is a sweet rolled omelet blended with a fish or shrimp paste. Originally, this paste was laboriously hand-ground using a mortar and pestle, so most modern chefs use hanpen, a type of surimi (fishcake), instead.
Unlike the popular tamagoyaki, which is rolled in the pan in multiple thin layers, datemaki is cooked in a single layer and later rolled into shape. The final product is reminiscent of a scroll, which is why datemaki is associated with learning and success in school.
Tai or sea bream is both a delicious osechi dish and an example of the coy wordplay so popular in Japan. Medetai can mean happy, joyous, or auspicious, so tai is often eaten on New Year’s and other special occasions.
While the holes in lotus root may make some eaters squeamish, renkon invites an easy future with no obstacles, or at the very least, obstacles that you can see.
Yorokobu means happiness. So naturally kombu, a type of seaweed dish, will bring you happiness throughout the year.
Burdock root is difficult to harvest as the roots grow firmly in the soil and are difficult to cut. While these traits made the dish difficult to prepare in the past, those same traits act as a symbol for strength and stability in the year to come.
These sweet black soy beans literally translate to black bean. However, the word mame can also be used to mean health or diligence. Eating this dish is believed to instill those who eat it with the stamina and strength to succeed in their work.
The roe of the herring are packed tightly in a single cluster, which is one of the reasons this dish represents a large and prosperous family. But like many other osechi dishes, the meaning of this dish has many layers.
Kazu translates into the word number while ko is the word for child, indicating that this dish brings wishes of many children.Not only that, the herring is called nishin, which, when written with an alternate kanji, can mean “two parents.”
Kuri kinton consists of candied chestnuts, which are sometimes mixed with sweetened mashed potato. The golden yellow color of the dish is considered auspicious, and their similarity to koban (the gold coins used throughout the Edo period) associates them with gold and financial prosperity.
Tazukuri or Gomame
Anchovies were once used as fertilizer for rice fields. This dish of baby anchovies in a soy sauce glaze acts as a symbol for prosperity and abundance.
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The following food items are technically not a part of osechi ryori, but they nonetheless have a strong association with New Year’s celebrations in Japan. Any discussion of Oshogatsu food history would be incomplete without them.
Zoni, often referred to as ozoni, is a dish consisting of a dashi broth, mochi, and various additions such as meat or vegetables. The name is derived from the kanji for “mixed” and “boil.”
The tradition of eating zoni for New Year’s dates back to the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), and was exclusive to samurai for a time before becoming available to the general populace.
There are a number of regional varieties that include local produce or seafood to promote a bountiful harvest, but the inclusion of mochi is non-negotiable. When eaten, the mochi will stretch, which not only produces a wonderful mouthfeel and entertaining experience, it also acts as a symbol of longevity.
Toshikoshi soba is eaten both on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and is known as the “year-crossing-noodle.” This dish is traditionally made with buckwheat noodles in a light dashi broth with a garnish of scallions, though some may add kamaboko or tempura to complement the final product. It gained popularity during the Edo period (1603-1867) and has taken on a number of symbolic meanings since then.
The length of the noodles represents the bridge between this year and the next while the ease with which they’re cut symbolizes leaving the hardship of the previous year behind. The buckwheat from which the noodles are made are hardy and survive harsh weather conditions, instilling those who eat this dish with the same strength.
Just make sure you make an appropriate portion because some believe that leftovers can negatively impact your fortune.
Daidai and Kagami Mochi
Kagami mochi is not typically found in osechi cuisine, but the “mirror rice cake” and bitter daidai oranges are synonymous with Japanese New Year’s celebrations. It’s believed that kagami mochi first appeared during the Muromachi period, with the two stacked mochi disks symbolizing the passage of the years.
The daidai placed atop the mochi represents multiple generations as the fruit of the daidai tree will remain for several years if unpicked, and a tree can hold fruit from multiple generations. The practice of placing the daidai on top of the kagami mochi is believed to have started during the Edo period.
Together, the kagami mochi and daidai represent the legacy of family through the generations, and the wish for the family to continue to prosper for years to come.
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Osechi Ryori is not just delicious food with a rich history, it’s a representation of Japanese culture. The dishes within reflect the values of a people that bravely look to the future while letting go of the struggles of the past. It gives hope that even in the ever-changing future, the spirit of Japan and its people will live on.
So when you’re enjoying your bowl of toshikoshi soba this year or opening your jubako filled with osechi ryori, eat heartily and remember that each bite brings you wishes of a happy and prosperous new year.
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!