By HIKARU ITO, Rafu contributor
Japanese New Year 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 also for the rich history, tradition and meaning of each dish. Called Washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, this culinary culture was named Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013.
Washoku encapsulates the traditions of sustainable food production and consumption, and these values ââare fully on display in the preparation and selection of Japanese New Year’s dishes known as osechi ryori.
Osechi ryori is said to date back to the Heian period (794-1185), and can often be found in beautifully lacquered boxes called jubako. Traditionally, osechi was done the day before because the use of the fireplace was taboo, and consisted of simple vegetable dishes.
Today, osechi can be found ready to use even at 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 buy than ever, each dish it contains continues to be both delicious and loaded with symbolic meaning.
Whether you’re making them at home or buying them ready-made, here are some dishes you can expect to find in osechi ryori jubako.
Ebi or shrimp are another popular item in osechi meals. Whether included in soups or on a skewer with a light layer of sauce, ebi adds delicious umami and longevity wishes. How could a shrimp signify longevity, you ask? The curved body and long antennae of the shrimp resemble those of a hunched man with long mustaches, which symbolize life into old age.
Datemaki is a sweet rolled omelet mixed with fish or shrimp paste. Originally, this dough was painstakingly ground by hand using a mortar and pestle, so most modern chefs use hanpen, a type of surimi (fish cake), instead.
Unlike the popular tamagoyaki, which is rolled in the pan in several thin layers, dates is baked in a single layer and then rolled into shape. The end product is reminiscent of a parchment, which is why dates is associated with learning and success in school.
Tai where sea bream is both a delicious osechi dish and an example of the shy pun so popular in Japan. Medetai can mean happy, joyous or auspicious, so tai is often eaten on New Years and other special occasions.
While the holes in the lotus root can make some eaters squeamish, renkon invites an easy future without obstacles, or at the very least, obstacles that you can see.
Yorokobu means happiness. So naturally kombu, a kind of seaweed dish, will bring you happiness all year round.
Burdock root is difficult to harvest because the roots grow firmly in the soil and are difficult to cut. While these characteristics have made the dish difficult to prepare in the past, these same characteristics act as a symbol of strength and stability for the year to come.
These sweet black soy beans literally translate to black bean. However, the word mom can also be used to signify health or diligence. It is believed that eating this dish instills in those who eat it the stamina and strength necessary to be successful in their work.
Herring roe is wrapped tightly in a single cluster, which is one of the reasons this dish represents a large and successful family. But like many others osechi dishes, the meaning of this dish has several layers.
Kazu translates to the number of words while ko is the word for child, indicating that this dish brings the wishes of many children. Not only that, the herring is called nishin, which, when written with a substitute kanji, can mean “two parents”.
Kuri kinton consists of candied chestnuts, which are sometimes mixed with sweet mashed potatoes. The golden yellow color of the dish is considered auspicious, and their similarity to koban (the gold coins used throughout the Edo period) associated 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 of prosperity and abundance.
â¢ â¢ â¢
The following foods are technically not part of osechi ryori, but they nonetheless have a strong association with New Year’s celebrations in Japan. Any discussion of Oshogatsu’s eating history would be incomplete without them.
Zoni, often called ozoni, is a dish composed of a dashi broth, mochi and various additions such as meat or vegetables. The name is derived from kanji for âmixedâ and âboilâ.
The tradition of eating zoni for the New Year dates back to the Muromachi period (1336-1573), and was exclusive to samurai for some time before becoming available to the general public.
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 mouth feel and an entertaining experience, but also acts as a symbol of longevity.
Toshikoshi soba is eaten on both New Years Eve and New Years Day, and is known as âyear-passing noodlesâ. This dish is traditionally prepared with buckwheat noodles in a light dashi broth with a garnish of green onions, although some may add kamaboko or tempura to complete the final product. It gained popularity during the Edo period (1603-1867) and has since taken on a number of symbolic meanings.
The length of the noodles represents the bridge between that year and the next, while the ease with which they are cut symbolizes letting go of the hardships of the previous year. The buckwheat from which the noodles are made is sturdy and withstands harsh weather conditions, instilling in those who eat this dish the same strength.
Just make sure you make an appropriate portion, as some believe leftovers can negatively impact your fortune.
Daidai and Kagami Mochi
Kagami mochi is not usually found in osechi kitchen, but the “mirror rice cake” and bitter daidai oranges are synonymous with Japanese New Year celebrations. It is believed that mochi kagami first appeared during the Muromachi period, with the two stacked mochi discs symbolizing the passage of the years.
the daidai placed at the top of the mochi represents several generations as the fruit of daidai tree will remain for many years if it is not picked, and a tree may contain fruit for several generations. The practice of placing the daidai on mochi kagami would have started during the Edo period.
Together the mochi kagami and daidai represent the family’s legacy through the generations and the family’s wish to continue to prosper for years to come.
â¢ â¢ â¢
Osechi Ryori is not only delicious food with a rich history, it is a representation of Japanese culture. The dishes inside reflect the values ââof a people who courageously look to the future while letting go of the struggles of the past. This gives hope that even in an ever-changing future, the spirit of Japan and its people will live on.
So when you savor your bowl of toshikoshi soba this year or by opening your jubako filled with osechi ryori, eat heartily, and remember that every bite brings you a happy new year.
Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!