Translated by MATCHA_En
Osechi - Traditional New Year's Japanese Cuisine
Written by Ayako Motokimida
On New Years, Japanese people go back to their hometowns and spend a few days celebrating and relaxing with their extended families. During this time, it's traditional to eat osechi - but what makes up this intricate set of dishes?
Photo by: Taichiro Ueki
On New Years, Japanese people go back their home and spend a time with their family. While staying at home on New Years, it is a tradition to eat osechi with the whole family.
What Is Osechi?
Osechi is a traditional Japanese cuisine for New Years. It is prepared at the end of a year and eaten during the first three days of the New Year. Thus, it has to be made up of foods that can safely be eaten even a few days after being cooked.
There are several theories surrounding the origin of osechi: "to not make the god of fire mad on the first day of the year", "to avoid accidents during the new year", "to give people a break from constant cooking and household tasks", etc.
What’s in Osechi?
Photo by: Hajime NAKANO
The contents of osechi vary from community to community and even from family to family. Ever since the Meiji period, it has been common to use a set of nesting boxes to hold the osechi, however some families prefer to use large platters instead. Here are some of the most common osechi dishes across Japan.
Nishin - Herring Roe
Photo by: Mokeneco
Nishin are salted herring roe. The word nishin can be written as "herring roe" or "both parents" depending on the kanji characters used, and as such, is meant to be a lucky dish that brings blessing of children to a family.
Kuromame - Black Beans
Photo by: Satoshi KINOKUNI
Kuromame are boiled black beans that are sweet and soft. Beans originally have a meaning of healthy or robust, and nowadays are also a symbol of earnestness. These beans are eaten in hopes of being healthy throughout the year.
Gomame - Dried Anchovies
Photo by: Tatsuo Yamashita
Gomame are dried anchovies that have been simmered in a broth and seasoned with sugar and salt. In kanji characters, gomame is written as "making rice fields", because anchovies are often used as part of organic fertilizer for rice fields. Not only that, but anchovies' eyes ("me" in Japanese), look like sesame seeds ("goma" in Japanese).
Kurikinton - Mashed Sweet Potato with Chestnuts
Photo by: Hirotaka Nakajima
Kurikinton is mashed sweet potatoes with sweetened chestnuts ("kuri") in it. Kinton is Japanese for "gold dumpling" or "gold bedding", and is said to offer success in business when eaten at New Year's. Children love this dish too.
Kombumaki - Rolled Kelp and Anchovies
Photo by: Photo by (c)Tomo.Yun
Konbumaki are rolled kelp with anchovies, simmered in a stock with sugar and salt. Konbu kelp can also be pronounced kobu in Japanese, which when written with another character, is part of yorokobu, or "joy" - and signifies having a joyful new year.
Datemaki - Rolled Omelettes
Photo by: Junpei Abe
Datemaki are a rolled egg and fish cake dish made with sushi vinegar as well. Date means "stylish", and this dish is said to make your osechi look more splendid, but in the past, its scroll-like shape meant that it represented "wisdom" instead.
Kohaku Kamaboko - Fish Cakes
Photo by: Tatsuo Yamashita
Kamaboko is boiled fish paste, and because its shape resembles the rising sun, it is often a part of celebratory meals in Japan. Osechi kamaboko refer to the first sunrise of the new year in particular.
Red and white have been the colors of celebration in Japan since ancient times, with red symbolizing joy and protection, while white is a symbol of divinity and purity.
Photo by: Photo Chips
The shape of a shrimp and its antenna are thought to symbolize longevity, as it can look like an old man with whiskers whose back is bent from old age.
Namasu - Pickled Carrots and Daikon Radish
Photo by: Nyaho
Namasu is ribbon sliced carrots and white radish pickled with vinegar - this dish is also red and white and said to be a symbol of celebration.
There are of course many other osechi dishes enjoyed on New Year's, far too many to fit all in a single article.
Ordering Take-Out Osechi
Although osechi was originally an entirely homemade dish, because of changing family patterns and lifestyles, it's now possible to order osechi made by department stores or famous restaurants too. If you want to guarantee your osechi order though, you should order early, usually in the end of November. Or, if you're staying at a hotel that provides breakfast, you might be able to enjoy some original osechi dishes as well.
If you are spending the New Year in Japan, why not try and experience different osechi dishes in different regions?