Simple Home Recipe for Osechi: Traditional Japanese New Year’s Food
The most representative food eaten during New Year’s celebrations in Japan is “Osechi” dishes. They are sold and offered in various places from restaurants, department stores, on-line stores, and convenience stores. There are as many ways of enjoying osechi cooking as there are Japanese families, but here we would like to introduce a way of making traditional osechi at home.
Osechi ryori or osechi cooking traditionally referred to dishes made on the day of the “sekku” (five traditional annual holidays celebrating the change of seasons on January 7th, March 3rd, May 5th, July 7th, and September 9th). Nowadays it refers to “New Year’s Cuisine”. The standard style is to pack the dishes in stacked lacquered boxes. (The one pictured here is made of ceramic).
The contents of the meal differ by region or by family, but kuromame (black beans), kazunoko (herring roe) and tazukuri (dried anchovy) are 3 preferred dishes to be included as they are dishes that are considered to bring good luck. Here we introduce in detail, the three dishes “kuromame”, “kazunoko”, “tazukuri” as well as “onamasu (vinegary marinated vegetables)” and “kamaboko (fish cake)”.
Kuromame (Black Soy Beans)
This is a dish that expresses hopes for a long and healthy life. It is a play on words for the word “mame” which means “to be hardworking”, and the word for bean “mame”, which are pronounced exactly the same. The dish signifies the hope for one to live such a long hardworking life so as to be dark and sun burnt. As it takes time to prepare the beans and let the flavors soak in, some people start preparations as early as 5 days in advance to prepare the osechi.
The photo above shows soy beans that have been harvested, dried and have become round. Black soy beans from the Tanba region (Hyogo Prefecture) are well known, and they are even referred to as “black jewels”. Their name comes from the size of the grains and the beauty of their appearance and they are sold for around 4,000 yen per kilogram. It is over double the price of white soy beans or the black soybeans from Hokkaido.
Kansai Method of Cooking
For methods of cooking kuromame, there are two different styles. One is the method of the Kansai region that aims to achieve plumpness and the other is that of the Kanto region which aims to achieve wrinkles on the surface of the beans likening it to the wrinkles of someone who has lived a long life. Here we introduce the method of the Kansai region.
Bring 10 cups (2L) of water to a boil in a pot. Once boiled, add 200 to 300 grams of sugar (we have used 250g) 1 Tbsp of soy sauce, 2 cups (300g) of washed black soybeans and immediately take off heat. Cover and let it sit for 8 to 10 hours.
After letting the pot of black soybeans soak, put the pot over heat again. Once it comes to a boil, remove any scum and cook over low heat for 5 to 6 hours. The heat should be low enough that the beans do not jiggle around in the boiling water.
Add water if too much of the liquid evaporates. There should be enough liquid so that the beans remain immersed in the liquid. Once the beans become tender enough that it is easily smushed when pressed between the fingertips, it is complete.
*In the Kanto style, the black soybeans are soaked in water before cooking. Either in the Kanto style or in the Kansai style, use an iron pot if possible to ensure good coloring of the beans. If you do not have an iron pot, placing washed iron nails covered in cloth into the pot makes the black color of the beans more dark and beautiful in appearance.
Onamasu (Vinegary Marinated Vegetables)
The ingredients are daikon radish and carrots. If possible, using the native carrot variety, the kintoki ninjin rather than western varieties gives better coloring to the dish.
Cut the daikon (600g) and carrot (4cm) into julienne strips.
Prepare salt water (2 tsp salt, 400mL of water), add the daikon and carrots and soak for about 10 minutes. Mix it gently with the hands and once the vegetables become limp, squeeze the excess moisture out of the vegetables.
Mix 100 mL of vinegar, 4 Tbsp of sugar, 1/2 Tbsp of salt. Add the squeezed daikon and carrots and mix well.
In Japan, red and white are considered auspicious colors. The thinly cut strips are said to symbolize the pieces of string that are wrapped around the special envelopes used for celebratory occasions.
Tazukuri (Dried Anchovy)
Put 50g of “gomame” in a frying pan and toast over low medium heat for about 10 to 15 minutes taking care not to burn the fish. The secret is to get the fish to a toasty crisp so that it breaks when applying light pressure to it.
Once toasted, transfer the anchovies to a plate and wash the frying pan. Heat 1 Tbsp each of dashi stock, soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), sugar and simmer until half the liquid is evaporated.
Once bubbling, return the anchovies back into the pan. Coat the anchovies in the sauce, spread the mixture over a cooking sheet or an oiled tray to cool.
Gomame are dried anchovy fry. As it is used as nutrients in the fields to make good crops, it is considered a dish that brings luck in hopes of good harvest.
Kazunoko (Herring Roe), Kamaboko (Fish Cake)
Kazunoko is herring roe and is included as a dish to pray for prosperity of the descendents. It takes about 2 to 3 days for the flavors to seep in, but nowadays, the herring roe is sold soaked in brine, so it is first soaked overnight to get rid of excess salt, then cooked in a broth of dashi stock, soy sauce and mirin. It is then soaked in a mixture of broth and kelp once cooled.
Kamaboko is made from a paste of ground white fish meat. White flesh fish was very expensive in the past and was eaten as a delicacy during celebratory occasions. As red and white are festive colors, it was considered good luck since the old days along with the onamasu. After being cut, the red and white pieces are placed alternately within the lacquered box.
Next time, we hope to show how to make the “kinton”, shown in the lower left of the photo above and the way of decoratively cutting carrots in the shape of plum flowers.