What do you do on New Year’s Day? Some people follow the custom of hatsumode and head off for their first visit of the year to a shrine; others simply stay in and have a party with relatives and friends. For almost every Japanese family, though, one of the highlights of this holiday is eating osechi ryori, the colorful assortment of traditional seasonal delicacies.
But osechi is more than just a meal served in beautiful black-lacquer jubako (stacked boxes).
“When I was younger, I didn’t think that osechi was very tasty,” says Yukio Hattori, president of Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition Hattori. “But after my parents told me that osechi was important food offered to god, and we must eat it to pray for health and good luck, I began to enjoy it. It is a lot different if you eat it knowing this background information.”
Although osechi originated as an offering to Toshigami, the god of the grain harvest, it is now better known just as special food eaten on New Year’s Day. There is, however, more to osechi than mere food — three whole layers of meaning, in fact.
The top jubako in the stack, called the ichi no ju, is also known as kuchitori (in other words, the hors d’oeuvres). A festive custom is to drink toso (spiced sake) while munching on these treats, one of whose main dishes is kohaku kamaboko (red-and-white fish paste) whose colors are thought appropriate for the occasion, being representative of pleasure (red) and holiness (white).
In this top box you’ll also often find sanshu sakana (three types of side dishes): kuro-mame (black beans), which are thought auspicious for a long and healthy life; tazukuri (dried sardines cooked in soy sauce), which are deemed propitious for a good harvest; and kazunoko (salted herring roe), which is said to auger well for prosperity. Those with a sweet tooth may also be pleasantly surprised to find datemaki (sweet omelet) and kurikinton (sweet potato and chestnut) also on the kuchitori menu.
Having polished off the starters — and more toso to taste — it’s time to move on to the ni no ju (second box). Here the theme is sunomono (appetizers marinaded in sweetened vinegar), which almost always include kohaku namasu (seasoned carrot and radish) and subasu (seasoned lotus root), which is believed to offer a glimpse of the upcoming year through the holes in the slices.
Recently, however, in addition to these spicy dishes, many families now include broiled seafood dishes in their ni no ju as well. Among these, onigara-yaki (broiled shrimp) is commonly included as a way of wishing for longevity, because shrimps, when cooked, curl up in the shape of old people’s backs. Broiled tai (sea bream), too, is another regular — because the word tai sounds like a contraction of medetai, meaning auspicious.
Compared to the first and second jubako, san no ju (the third box) contains more substantial fare, especially nimono (vegetables cooked in sugar and soy sauce). Because these vegetables are cooked together in a pot, they are believed to represent family members continuing to be on good terms together in the coming year.
However, each vegetable is also invested with meaning.
The most likely one of all to find there is gobo (burdock). As a root vegetable, this is seen as placing the family on a firm foundation, while the presence of sato-imo (taro) in the pot is a kind of fertility symbol, as the many small taro that grow from the base of a big one are simplistically viewed as its children.
With that (and more toso, or whatever, to taste) the New Year’s osechi triple-decker is complete.
Nowadays, though, however meaningful and even atavistic the meal’s significance may seem, the truth is that more and more people find it fits their lifestyle better to just go out and buy whole osechi sets from department stores, hotels or traditional restaurants. And they aren’t cheap.
“I think it is OK to buy some of the osechi items,” Hattori says, adding that “if you try to make them all by hand, it can be even more expensive and time-consuming — but you should at least make the basic ones like kuro-mame and tazukuri.”
For Hattori himself, though, store-bought osechi is not an appetizing prospect. “The osechi you buy are too sweet, so I make them myself,” he says. “But unfortunately, so few people can make them nowadays, even though more and more are becoming interested in the slow-food movement. And that is exactly what osechi is: slow food.”