Photo: Osechi for new year day
For anyone that has spent time in Japan at the yearend, you’ve most likely heard of or seen shops taking reservations for “Osechi Ryori.” For many foreigners, though, Osechi is an unknown mystery. To the untrained eye, it may look like a large bento lunch box with a rather high price tag. This traditional food, though, has a deep meaning and a history that dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). This week I’ll be introducing Osechi and some of the food it is made with.
New Years in Japan, is traditionally a quiet time spent at home with family and visiting shrines to pay respects to the gods. The word Osechi Ryori comes from the term “sechinichi” meaning changing of seasons and “ryori” meaning cuisine. The food was originally used as an offering to the gods and thus each dish has a special meaning. Throughout the years, the food tradition spread throughout Japan and in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan introduced the western calendar and changed New Year’s from April to January, Osechi became known as New Year’s food.
It was said that in the first days of the new year, no work (including cooking) should be done as to not disturb the gods. This resulted in the women spending the final days of the year preparing enough food for the first few days of the year, which is why it resembles bento box-like packaging. Traditionally, it was made at home, but in recent years, the majority of families special order the meal at restaurants, supermarkets, and other food related companies.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of the dishes and their meaning.
Kuromame (black beans): hard work. Gives strength to work hard throughout the year. Often sprinkled with gold flakes
Tazukuri (sardines boiled in soy sauce): abundant harvest. The name literally means making rice field. Historically, sardines were used to fertilize fields.
Kouhaku Kamaboko (red & white fish cake): sunrise (new beginnings). Also, red in Japan wards off evil spirits while white represents purity.
Datemaki (sweet omelet-like roll): scholastic success. The roll resembles a scroll used for learning.
Kobu-maki (rolled kelp): happiness. Kobu (kelp) sounds like yorokobu, meaning happiness.
Shrimp & Lobster: Longevity. The kanji for shrimp is 海老, literally meaning sea and old man. The lobster also makes it more decorative and the red protects it from evil.
Gobo (burdock root): strength and stability. Gobo roots grown deep and strong
Kazunoko (herring roe): fertility. The large number of eggs and the name also means “number of children.”
These are just a few of the foods that are included in Osechi. As time has passed, more modern recipes and western dishes have been introduced to the cuisine to match the taste of modern times, but these meaningful dishes continue to be the base of this New Year’s cuisine.
Bonus: At the turn of the new year, a special soba is usually eaten. Named Toshikoshi soba, meaning to bring in the new year, the long and fine soba noodles represent the desired life of the eater.
Author: Kagoshima Cameron