Every year from October onward, the food halls of department stores, mail order catalogs, online shops and more are filled with colorful displays of osechi ryōri, New Year’s feast food. This display of abundance may seem a deep-rooted Japanese tradition, but its history is not that old.
The word “osechi” originates from “osechiku,” seasonal events that were celebrated several times throughout the year at the Imperial Court during the Heian Period (794-1185). These were times for feasting as well as making food offerings to the gods.
The use of the word to refer to the food served during the New Year period started in the mid-to-late 19th century, during the late Edo Period (1603-1868) and into the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). This is also when people other than the aristocracy and the very wealthy became able to afford the colorful array of foods we know as osechi today.
The style of osechi that was established then, and still persists to an extent, is an array of foods tightly packed into jūbako (stacking lacquered boxes). Most items are quite salty, sweet or sour to improve their preservation, since the foods are made in advance — mochi rice cakes are also eaten instead of steamed rice — to give the cook of the house a break during the New Year period, particularly in the days before refrigeration existed.
This “traditional” osechi ryōri is gradually falling out of favor, however. According to a survey of 7,000 Japanese people in their 20s to 60s, conducted in 2017 by Kibun Foods Inc., a major manufacturer of osechi foods, only 54 percent answered that they had osechi ryōri during the New Year period, whether homemade or store bought.
The strong salty-sweet flavors of osechi, the work it takes to cook and arrange it nicely in the jūbako and the fact that, unlike in the past, most stores are open during the New Year period so you can go and buy any food you want, seem to be contributing factors.
In my family, we still make or buy some osechi foods and enjoy having mochi for meals. But, when we all get together, there’s a variety of food on the table for all ages and tastes, such as roast beef, sushi and meatloaf. One osechi food that my mother always makes is onishime, a colorful dish of simmered vegetables and atsuage (fried tofu). Here is her recipe, which is not as salty-sweet as the traditional kind of onishime that needed to keep for days. It’s also vegetarian friendly.
A mother’s New Year onishime
Ingredients (serves 4 to 6 as part of a New Year’s feast):
• 10 grams konbu seaweed (a 15-centimeter square piece)
• 500 milliliters water
• ½ medium burdock root (gobō)
• 1 medium carrot
• 1 small section lotus root (renkon)
• 3 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked until softened — reserve the soaking liquid
• 4 medium taro roots (satoimo)
• 1 precooked vacuum-packed bamboo shoot
• 100 grams konnyaku (⅓ of a block)
• 1 large block of fried tofu (atsuage)
• A handful of green beans (or snow peas)
• ½ tablespoon sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• ½ tablespoon mirin
• ½ tablespoon soy sauce, plus additional soy sauce
Make the dashi: Put the konbu seaweed in a pan with the water and soak for at least an hour. Heat the water, and when it has just started to boil, turn off the heat. Leave to cool.
Peel and cut the burdock root and carrot into bite-sized pieces.
Cut a bit off the top and bottom of the taro roots, cut in half and peel. Peel the lotus root, cut into ½-centimeter thick pieces and then slice into quarters. Cut the bamboo shoot into bite-size pieces. Cut the stems off the shiitake mushrooms and slice into quarters. Remove the tops and tails off the green beans and cut into 2-centimeter pieces. Cut the atsuage into bite-size cubes.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the taro root and blanch for three minutes. Take out the taro root with a slotted spoon. Repeat with the lotus root, burdock root and carrot in that order. Finally, put in the konnyaku and boil for a minute. Drain, cool and rip up into bite-size pieces with a spoon.
Bring a small pan of water to a boil and blanch the green beans or snow peas for about a minute. Drain.
Heat the sesame oil in another pan over medium heat. Add the konnyaku and all the vegetables except the green beans. Stir-fry for about three minutes.
Add 100 milliliters of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and just enough dashi to cover the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer.
Cover with a small lid that sits right on top of the ingredients (an otoshibuta) and cook for 20 to 25 minutes until the burdock root is cooked through. Add the atsuage and the soy sauce, mirin and sugar.
Holding onto the pan handle firmly, toss the contents around so that everything is well-coated. Taste a piece of carrot or taro root, and add a little extra soy sauce to the pan if needed. Serve on a plate or in one layer of the jūbako.
This can be stored for up to three days in the refrigerator.
You can use 180 grams of chicken thigh meat cut into cubes instead of the atsuage. Stir-fry with the vegetables and proceed with the recipe.
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