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Savor the symbolism at New Year’s

by Makiko Itoh

New Year’s is the most important holiday on the Japanese calendar. And as befitting such an important festival, the food traditionally served is lavish and elaborate. At the centerpiece of the New Year’s feast, which traditionally went on for as long as seven days, is osechi ryōri, a colorful spread packed into multi-tiered lacquered boxes called jūbako.

The custom of serving a feast in layered boxes or on several decorated plates has been around for at least 1,000 years, but the current form of osechi ryōri was established in the late 19th century, during the Meiji Era. Each item that is included has symbolic meaning. The shiny black color of kuromame (stewed black soybeans) wards of evil humors and illness, and keeps the body healthy and hearty. Tazukuri (tiny baby sardines cooked until they are crunchy and sweet) symbolize hope for an abundant harvest. Kazunoko (salted and marinated herring roe) is a symbol of fertility, as is kobumaki (herring wrapped in konbu seaweed and stewed).

It’s not all just about the body, either, but quality of life. For example, datemaki (a rolled omelette containing fish paste) symbolizes learning and academic achievement, since it looks like a rolled document, while the golden color of kuri kinton (sweet-potato paste with stewed chestnuts) symbolizes a wish for wealth and good fortune. Meanwhile, the see-through holes in sliced lotus root, a part of the simmered-vegetable dish called onishime, represent a wish for good foresight.

Even the fish and seafood that are the stars of osechi ryōri are significant: Ise ebi (spiny lobster) symbolizes longevity, since it lives so long and because of its trailing “whiskers”; buri (yellowtail) signifies a wish to get ahead in life, since it’s a fish whose name changes as it gets older; and tai (sea bream), which is usually presented grilled on a skewer so that it looks like it’s still swimming, is considered lucky because of its name, which is part of the word medetai — auspicious and joyous.

There are a couple of downsides to osechi ryōri, however. It takes a lot of time and skill to assemble all the components: One of my cookbooks recommends a “streamlined” plan of attack that takes a full week. Many people these days buy at least some of the items ready-made, and complete sets of ready-to-eat osechi are even available at convenience stores.

The other issue with osechi ryōri is that everything tends to be quite sweet, salty or sour, since it was meant to last for days without refrigeration. There’s a sense that many Japanese people these days eat osechi out of respect for its symbolism and tradition rather than because they find it delicious. More modern festive foods such as sashimi and sliced roast beef are also now part of a typical New Year’s feast in many Japanese homes.

If a full osechi ryōri spread is too much, consider getting just a few items to bring a little symbolic luck to your New Year’s table. One very easy option is to get a block each of pink and white kamaboko fish cakes, slice each half-moon shaped block evenly, and arrange the slices alternately. The kōhaku (red and white) combination is said to ward off evil and cleanse the spirit — a great way to start the new year afresh.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.