Japanese New Year traditional food—osechi ryouri & more!
Posted on December 11, 2020
If you happen to be lucky enough to visit Japan during New Year’s, you might be surprised to find it a much more wholesome few days than the rowdy all-nighter on New Year’s Eve followed by a splitting headache that a lot of us might be used to in other parts of the world. Rather than going outside with friends, New Year’s remains till this day a family-centered celebration in which age-old traditions are practiced at home. If you ask any Japanese person what food is eaten on New Year’s, almost anyone would tell you about osechi ryouri, a unique food that is only eaten at the beginning of the New Year and that is said to bring good luck for the year ahead.
Osechi began as a way for families to survive through the first few days of the year when all the shops were closed. A variety of dishes would be prepared in advance and then put in the coldest part of the house so as not to go bad before eating. These days, osechi boxes can be bought at supermarkets, department stores, or sometimes even restaurants. However you need to order well in advance as the good ones quickly sell out, sometimes as early as October!
photo by @yukinkoo0316
Traditionally served in a lacquer box (jūbako), at first glance they look a lot like bento boxes. What stands out about osechi is the culinary artistry in the choice of color and presentation of the dishes. There is good reason for it too! Each dish is imbued with well wishes for the new year that take the form as good fortune, wealth, happiness, and others.
Shrimp is very commonly presented in osechi ryouri to signify long life.
On the bottom corner, you can see a yellow food that resembles tamago-yaki or egg custard. But this one, called ‘datemaki’ is actually made from fish paste or mashed shrimp and is rather sweet and spongey. Datemaki symbolizes good wishes for the children.
photo by @tomoruru22
Ozoni is a traditional Japanese New Year’s soup and typically features an assortment of vegetables, fishcake, rice cake, and sometimes seafood or meat. Depending on which region you visit in Japan, the ozoni prepared for New Year’s may vary. For example, in Kansai area, the ozoni soup base is made from white miso and dashi resulting in a white soup base. Kanto ozoni, on the other hand, uses a soy sauce base for the soup which is brown in color.
photo by @iina_veganfoodcreator
The mashed potato-looking dish in the top right corner is actually sweet potatoes with chestnuts. This dish is called ‘kurikinton’ which means chestnut gold mash in Japanese. Japanese people eat this for good fortune in prosperity and wealth.
The pickled vinegar carrot and daikon called ‘Namasu’ can be seen right in the middle of the box. The dish gets its name from the combination of two words—nama, meaning raw, and su, meaning vinegar. In Japan, red and white are considered colors of celebration and so in this case, the namasu dish works perfectly for the New Year.
photo by @knm.max73hero
The black beans in the pink dish are literally translated to ‘kuromame.’ They are soft and sweet with a hint of soy sauce.
The orange peel being used as a bowl for the namasu is known as ‘daidai.’ It is a common New Year’s decoration as it represents a long family line for future generations.
photo by @ichikawa.cooking
More red and white dish variations! Here we have ‘kamaboko,’ which is a pink and white fish cake.
The small, dried sardines you see here are called ‘gomame.’ Eaten whole, these little guys are meant to bring bountiful harvest for the new year, so be sure to eat the heads too!
photo by @atsugram_8810
This person has gone all out with their festive decorations! Maneki neko, the “beckoning cat,” and the red daruma doll are both good luck charms.
The Okame woman’s face is used in a traditional New Year’s children’s game called ‘fukuwarai’ in which blindfolded players will aim to pin facial features onto an empty face.
And finally the straw-rope decoration on the right is called ‘shimekazari.’ Traditionally, people would use shimekazari to welcome and receive the harvest god, Toshigami.
photo by @knm.max73hero
On the right hand side, you might be able to see the rolled-up piece of seaweed tied up with a brown gourd strip ribbon. This dish is called ‘kombumaki.” Kombumaki may be stuffed with salmon and is usually cooked with the common Japanese ingredients of dashi, mirin, sugar, and soy sauce.
On the left hand side, we have a box of ‘sekihan,’ meaning red rice. Sekihan symbolizes happiness and prosperity and is often served on special celebratory occasions in Japan, including New Year’s. You can sprinkle salt on top of the rice for extra flavor.
Please try out these unique flavors and enjoy the vibrant colors of osechi the next time you come to Japan, or you can even try making it at home from abroad! I think considering how 2020 went, I’ll surely be eating my fair share of osechi in the New Year to stock myself on all the good luck I can get…
Written by: Maya Kimura Watts