Christmas and St. Valentine’s Day may find favor in the eyes of young people, but New Year’s Day is still the highlight of Japan’s festive calendar. With kadomatsu pines at the doors of people’s homes, New Year’s cards cramming post boxes, and shrines crowded as people make their hatsumode (first visit of the year), the atmosphere is always lively.
But for most people, osechi ryori undoubtedly tops all the holiday’s other traditional features. This festive food, only eaten during the first few days of the new year, is an assortment of colorful side dishes placed neatly in jubako (stacked boxes).
The word osechi itself is a shortened form of osechiku, which is food offered at a home altar on the festival days of Jan. 1, Jan. 7, March 3, May 5, July 7 and Sept. 9 in a ritual which began in the Heian Period (794-1185). Now, though, osechi ryori usually refers only to those delicacies eaten at New Year’s.
“New Year’s is a ritual to welcome Toshigami,” says Yukio Hattori, president of Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition Hattori. “Toshigami is the god who protects the grains throughout the year. And on New Year’s, we present various offerings to Toshigami-sama.”
According to Hattori, the custom of osechi ryori also gave housewives a break from their otherwise relentless daily regime of cleaning, washing and cooking. The three days of New Year’s were the only time they could take it easy — though in order to have those three days of blissful indolence, they slogged for days at the end of the year preparing enough food to last through their “holiday.”
“Because of this, osechi ryori was preserved food.” says Hattori. “The flavors were stronger than usual so it lasted longer. Plus, even when people didn’t own refrigerators, all you had to do was leave it outside in the cold.”
Eaten with osechi is ozoni, a soup with mochi rice cakes and vegetables. The recipe for ozoni differs according to the locality. In the Kanto region, its base is soy sauce, and the mochi is cut into rectangular shapes; in Kansai, the base is white miso and the mochi is rounded.
“Each variety of ozoni has its own characteristics,” says Hattori. “Japanese people really know how to make excellent use of local produce.”
Although the data of food manufacturer Kibun Foods Inc. for 2002 shows that 97.4 percent of Japanese people still eat osechi ryori, traditions are changing. Indeed, Hattori worries that the handing down of Japanese food culture is diminishing, with one example being a breakdown in the passing on of osechi recipes from mothers to daughters. Instead, all people now have to do is go to a shop or surf the Internet to get delicious ready-made osechi.
“Each dish of osechi has a special meaning,” says Hattori. “In that sense, osechi plays an important role in traditional Japanese food culture. I hope our children will continue to inherit this tradition.”