This year will be our first new years spent in Tokyo. It’s pretty unheard of that this city, always buzzing with lights, retail, and nightlife, will turn into a ghost town for a few days over the holiday. In fact, it already feels like that now. Crowds at restaurants and train stations have thinned out. And so have the shelves at the grocery stores. What are people buying to cook at home? What do people eat here for new year’s?
Like Christmas in many Western cultures, New Year’s Day in Japan, called shogatsu, is a time for families to come together and partake in age-old traditions. Besides watching the first sunrise of the year, eating mikan (mandarin oranges), and watching the ekiden (a national relay race) on television, families gather to eat osechi ryori, the dishes that are traditionally enjoyed over the New Year holiday.
Osechi ryori dishes are imbued with tradition and meaning. Dishes have special significance—representing health, happiness, wealth in the new year. The food itself and the methods of preparation can differ from region to region, and family to family. Indeed, I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for daughters and mothers-in-law, having differing opinions on how cook various dishes, to butt heads in the kitchen. Whatever the repertoire of dishes served, the wish is the same for all families—to have good health, prosperity, and happiness in the new year.
Not only do the dishes have meaning, so does their presentation. Osechi dishes are generally known to be colorful and flamboyant in appearance. Small amounts of each dish are carefully arranged in compartments of special lacquered bento box called jubako. A traditional jubako box has four tiers: Ichi-no-ju (first tier) for various sweet dishes, Ni-no-ju (second tier) for grilled dishes, San-no-ju (third tier) for stewed dishes, and Yo-no-ju (fourth tier) for pickled dishes. According to tradition, when packing the boxes, each box should hold an uneven number of dishes, and all food should be packed tightly, without any free space.
In the past, osechi ryori was commonly prepared during the days leading up to shogatsu because it was considered bad luck to use fire during the days of the new year. As such, most osechi is cooked with salt, vinegar, and sugar—natural preservatives that help the food last over several days of meals. Nowadays, with peoples’ busy schedules, more and more families are buying premade osechi from department stores and hotels.
I recently took a cooking class to learn more about the significance of osechi ryori and how to make a few of these dishes. For four years now, Kitchen Nippon, a cooking school in Tokyo, has offered a special cooking class that offers participants a hands-on experience into the world of osechi ryori. Organizer Kaoru Shibata and Chef Machiko Tateno teach students, in both English and Japanese, how to make several traditional dishes that can easily be recreated using ingredients in their home countries.
Following Chef Machiko’s step-by-step demo of how to make each of the dishes, students work in teams of 4-5 to recreate the dishes on their own. At the end, students are shown how to arrange the items in a bento box. It’s no surprise why so many Japanese look forward to celebrating the new year’s holiday every year—osechi ryori is not only delicious, it’s visually stunning. Here are some popular dishes, including some dishes we cooked in my class.
1. Datemaki (Sweet egg omelet roll)
Datemaki is popular dish for its sweet taste, color, and shape. Rolled like a scroll, datemaki represents academic success in the new year. Its yellow color is also symbolic of fortune. The main ingredients consist of eggs, fish cake, mirin, and sugar.
2. Renkon (Lotus root)
With its many holes, lotus root symbolizes having a clear view of a successful future. Various ways of preparation exist, from pickled to cooked with sesame and miso.
3. Kurikinton (Sweetened mashed chestnut and sweet potato)
The word kinton means gold dumpling, like golden nuggets or ingots, which were used as currency historically in Japan. Therefore, eating kurikinton represents wealth and prosperity. Some families serve a simple mash, while others form the mash into dumpling shapes.
4. Kuromame (Black soy beans)
Kuromame symbolizes hard word and good health. In Japanese, the word mame, which means bean, also sounds like the word for “hard work” and “health.” Traditionally, kuromame are boiled in syrup until sweet and soft.
5. Namasu (Daikon and carrot salad)
The thin white strips of daikon and bright orange-red of carrot in this dish resemble the same colors as mizuhiki, the decorative string used on special occasions that symbolize good fortune. Slivers of yellow yuzu peel, a color that also represents fortune, are added as garnish.
6. Matsukaze Yaki (Minced chicken and tofu loaf)
The name matsukaze, meaning “wind in the pine trees,” is an old tale of a young girl who happily dances around a pine tree to assuage her loneliness. Like the two sides of her mood, the dish is prepared with one side covered in sesame seeds or seaweed, while the other is left bare, a symbol of honesty in one’s dealings.
7. Ebi (shrimp)
Shrimp are an important of any osechi because their curved shape, like the curved backs of the elderly, represents a long, healthy life. Ebi are usually served boiled with light seasoning.
… Other popular osechi are:
Ozoni (Mochi soup)
Ozoni is an essential dish for New Year’s. Served separately from jubako, ozoni is a clear soup with rice mochi (rice cakes), meat, and vegetables. Each region and household has its own recipe, ranging from various soup bases (clear, miso, and red bean) to preparation of mochi (boiled, grilled, and stuffed).
Kazunoko (Herring roe)
With its myriad of tiny yellow eggs, kazunoko is a symbol of fertility. It is usually seasoned with soy sauce.
Tazukuri (Dried sardines)
A symbol of a good harvest, tazukuri is prepared by boiling tiny dried sardines in soy sauce for several hours.
The pink and white colors of kamaboko are reminiscent of the sunrise, an auspicious sign for the new year.
Daidai (Bitter orange)
In Japanese, daidai means “generation to generation,” so eating these oranges is a wish for the happiness of the family and future generations of children.
The osechi ryori class, offered every December, is one of Kitchen Nippon’s most popular classes. Make sure to check at their website for registration starting in November.
You’ll see that despite the lavish presentation, osechi ryori dishes are surprisingly simple to make! Kitchen Nippon provides take-home recipes for you to recreate these dishes at home. Impress your family by preparing a special bento box filled with dishes steeped in tradition and meaning!