One tradition that’s pretty universal in Japan during the New Year is eating osechi-ryōri (おせち料理). The individual foods might be eaten throughout the year, but for New Year they are arranged in a more special way to symbolize hopes for an auspicious year to come.
I’ve posted before about osechi-ryori, but strangely, I don’t think I ever actually explained it (if I did, I can’t find the post). So, this article is an example of what osechi-ryori might look like. Different families will do different things, depending on how much effort they want to put into it, and available resources.1
The presentation my wife did this year is pretty typical of our home, but again may be somewhat different than other families.
The first dish here is a baked snapper or tai (鯛):
Baked fish is a common dish in Japanese culture, but I grew up eating deep-fried fish and chips, so I never really tried regular baked fish until recently. Snapper isn’t my personal favorite (baked mackerel is good), but my wife did a nice job here. There hardest part of baking fish is how to deal with the smell. In Japan, they have special ovens for baking fish that can siphon the smell away, but we have an older, American oven and so the main trick is to bake in a little bit of water. If the fish gets to dry, the smell worsens.
The next dish, using a Mickey Mouse-shaped bento box we bought in Japan, is nimono or stewed vegetables (煮物):
Nimono is a common winter dish, but it’s really yummy because you can make it with all kinds of vegetables. Here we used chicken, lotus root (which looks like little wagon wheels), carrots, burdock root, and konyaku which looks like black jello, but is actually made of sweet potato. I love my wife’s nimono. It’s great.
Also, my wife made ozōni soup:
Ozoni soup is something you might enjoy any time during the winter, but it’s often served during New Year’s Day as well. Here you can see my wife used chopped spinach, mochi rice cake which melts nicely in the soup, chicken and a slice of the pink and white kamaboko (see below).
Finally the pièce de résistance:
This is the main osechi dish and includes the following (clockwise from upper-right):
- Black beans or kuromamé (黒豆), sweet. According to wikipedia the name “mamé” is a synonym for health.
- Chestnut paste or kurikinton (栗きんとん). This too is kind of sweet and tasty. The golden color also implies wealth and happiness.
- Stir-fried burdock root and carrots, julienne, or kinpira (キンピラ). These are slightly spicy, and one of my favorite winter dishes.
- Pink and white fish cakes or kamaboko (蒲鉾). The name doesn’t sound appetizing, but they’re actually quite good, especially in soup. The colors are festive, and the round shape looks like a rising sun implying the new year.2
- Wrapped konbu (昆布) rolls. Again, this is similar to the word yorokobu, the verb to enjoy something. Konbu seaweed is thicker and chewier than nori seaweed, but still good.
- Salmon roe eggs, or ikura (イクラ). Popular in sushi, but also good over rice with soy-sauce. But since they’re very salty, don’t eat too many or you’ll get indigestion.
- Shredded daikon and carrots with vinegar (?). More of a salad-type dish, but very tasty.
- In the middle is herring roe or kazunoko (数の子), which is also a word-play for kazu (number) and ko (children). This implies a household with many children.3
This page in Japanese has a more comprehensive explanation of different osechi dishes and their meaning, and the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful too.
If you buy the fancy, catered ones, the dishes will be much more elaborate, and in nice bento boxes (like the ones we enjoyed in Japan in past years), but this year my wife wanted to make it herself, and keep it fairly simple so we don’t have a lot of wasted food sitting around for days. This year the amount was just right, and was almost gone by the 2nd.
In the past, I’ve seen big elaborate osechi dishes, and the “good” foods get picked clean very quick, but the less appetizing choices tend to linger for days. So, sometimes less is more. ;)
Anyhow, that’s a brief look at osechi-ryori. :)
1 We know some Japanese wives who live overseas in places where these ingredients are pretty hard to obtain.
2 We bought some fancier kamaboko that had pictures inside. This photo, taken a few days later when my wife made leftovers, shows a slice of kamaboko with a picture of an umé (plum) branch.
3 People have been asking if we are going to have a third child, and although we would like to have a third child, I don’t think we can realistically afford one. Plus we’re getting old enough that it’s not such a good idea anynore.