3 Traditional Japanese Foods for New Years: Osechi Ryori and More!
Oshogatsu is an event to celebrate the New Year and is one of the most important celebrations in Japan. The period from January 1st to the 3rd is generally considered part of the Oshogatsu and most businesses and schools close during this time. In this article, we show you the traditional dishes Japanese eat during this festive time.
Osechi Ryori – The New Year Dishes
The word for New Year dishes, Osechi comes from the word Sechinichi. The sechinichi is a celebration for the change of the season. There are 5 sechinichi in 1 year, and in the old days, celebrations were held for each of those five days.
Among the sechinichi, Oshogatsu is not only a change between the seasons, but also marks the transition from year to year so it is considered particularly special. Nowadays, the dishes which are prepared for the New Year’s celebration is called Osechi and the dishes are placed in a type of nesting bento boxes called a jyubako.
In Japan, the 1st day of the new year is a day to welcome the gods, an event to celebrate the bountiful harvest of the new year as well as to wish for safety and well-being of the family. The Osechi dishes are prepared on New Year’s eve as an offering to the gods. It was considered that come the new year, the offering was then taken down for the family to enjoy.
The first three days of the new year is considered a time when offering is to be given to the gods and a time to pray. During this time, with the gods present, it is considered inappropriate to do any housework or to be toiling in the kitchen. Therefore, the tradition was to prepare a lot of dishes that would keep for a few days and eat those dishes for the first three days.
Nowadays there are convenience stores that are open all year around and many stores are open for business even during Oshogatsu. However, in the past most businesses were closed for Oshogatsu so there was also a practical reason for making the Osechi dishes and having them ready when you couldn’t go to shop for groceries.
The Osechi, which is prepared as an offering to the gods are not just a sumptuous feast. There is also special meaning behind each of the dishes that are placed in the jyubako.
1. Kurikinton (Sweetened chestnut)
A symbol of wealth and prosperity. The “kin” in the name of the dish uses the character for gold.
2. Red and White Kamaboko (Fish Cake)
The colors red and white symbolize auspiciousness and so are used in all kinds of celebrations. The ingredient for the fish cake, which is fish with white flesh was a very expensive ingredient. While raw seafood could not be transported long distances, the kamaboko’s longer shelf life allowed for it to be eaten even in areas that were distant from the sea. Thus it was considered a premium seafood product with a long shelf life.
3. Kobu Maki (Wrapped Seaweed)
A symbol for happiness for the family. It is from a play on words for seaweed “kobu (konbu)” and the last two syllables for the word, to be happy “yorokobu”.
4. Kuromame (Black Beans)
To work diligently, and to live happily. This is a play on words for the beans being called “mame” and similar sounding words in Japanese meaning to work diligently or to live happily.
Symbol of longevity. Since the back of the prawn is bent, the prawn symbolizes to “live long until your back becomes bent”.
6. Tazukuri (Dried Sardines/anchovies)
In the past, young anchovies were used as fertilizer. This was eaten as a prayer for a bountiful harvest.
7. Herring Roe
8. Red and White Namasu (Fish and Vegetables Seasoned in Vinegar)
Similar to the above, the red and white symbolize good luck. The thinly sliced vegetables are also said to represent the red and white pieces of string that are tied on the special envelopes when gifting money.
A symbol of fertility and perpetuation of descendants. This is because the taro bears a lot of small taros under the ground.
10. Datemaki (Rolled Omelet Mixed with Fish Paste)
The rolled appearance also was reminiscent of rolls of fabric for the kimono. So there are some that say it also symbolizes prosperity that the family will never go without proper clothes.
11. Lotus Root
The ozoni is a soup dish that includes mochi (rice cake) and other meat or vegetables. There are variations by region on the style of mochi, the seasoning and the ingredients. For example in eastern Japan the shape of the mochi is square and the soup soy sauce based. Or in western Japan, the mochi is round with miso based soup. However, the important concept is that it contains mochi.
Earlier, I’ve explained that the Osechi dishes were prepared as an offering to the gods. The mochi was also offered as an offering to the gods.
It is said that to eat this mochi with family once the offering period was over, meant to receive the blessings of the gods for the family.
Toshikoshi Soba (Soba to See the Old Year Out)
The Toshikoshi soba is a type of soba that is eaten on December 31st to bring in the good luck. It is a tradition that has been practiced since the Edo period. There are different customs by region and in some cases are called by different names.
As for the reason it is eaten at the end of the year, there are several theories.
1. To break off any ties with evil of the old year
The soba noodles break more easily compared to other types of noodles such as ramen or udon. Because they break easily, it is associated with severing any ties from evil that happened during the year.
2. To wish for longevity
Because noodles are long; to have a long life like the length of the soba noodles.
3. So that you will be blessed with wealth
In the past, craftsmen who worked with gold leaf would use a dumpling made of soba to collect loose pieces of gold foil.
4. To wish for good health
Because the soba plant is a strong plant, it is a symbol of vitality.
As for the timing to eat the Toshikoshi soba, it is said that it can be eaten any time on New Year’s Eve. It seems however, that many people eat it in the evening before midnight. However, to be eating it as the year is changing is considered bad luck.
Also, it is considered bad luck to have any leftover soba. Therefore, if you’re not sure of being able to eat the whole serving, it is better to make a smaller serving of soba.
When you look at the list of foods, it seems like Oshogatsu is a celebration of eating. I guess gathering with family and eating delicious food is the best celebration and the happiest moment in any culture. We hope that you get to try some of these dishes for Oshogatsu so that you can bring in luck for the coming year!