Osechi-ryori– The Japanese New Year’s Feast

Traditional celebratory food served in a jubako box

Beautifully presented food in traditional jubako box. Image courtesy of norecipes.com

Every year, until his passing, my grandfather would spend days preparing the most wondrous Japanese Feast to ring in the New Year. It was always one of the most memorable days of the year.

The New Year, in Japan known as oshogatsu, is considered the most important annual holiday, celebrated as such for centuries. Festivities usually run from January 1st through the 3rd (though before 1873, the New Year was celebrated using the Chinese Lunar Calendar). Preparations however, begin in the last few days of the previous year. In addition to the very special feast on the first, many in Japan visit shrines during the holiday, exchange nengajo postcards, and children receive gifts of money, packaged in special envelopes.

Ozoni soup

Ozoni – a traditional New Year’s soup always kicked off the meal in our family’s house (though it’s usually taken after osechi). Ingredients vary by region, but they all include mochi (pounded sticky rice cakes). Photo courtesy of cdn.norecipes.com

The traditional eats, called osechi ryori, is artistically presented in multi-layered lacquered Jubako boxes. Each food holds special significance historically or symbolically. For instance fish cakes – kamabuko - are prepared in red and white, colours that reference both the new year and the rising sun. Prawns represent longevity; sweet black beans – kuromame - are eaten for health, herring row – kazunoko – with their many eggs, for fertility. And it’s said a sweet chestnuts and mashed yam dish – kurikinton - brings happiness.

Daikon, burdock, carrots, blackbeans and turnip

A dish of burdock, daikon, carrots, blackbeans and turnip. Photo courtesy of norecipes.com

Reverence for the natural world and its inherent beauty is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and the New Year is a time to celebrate all that the coming seasons will offer. This importance is echoed in the food’s presentation, which typically includes vegetables arranged in ornate designs to reference the seasons (think plum flowers, chrysanthemums and pinecones).

Japanese black soybean dish

Kuromame are made by simmering black soybeans in an iron pot with sugar, water, soy sauce and baking soda. Eaten for good health as the word mame, meaning bean, also means “working like a bee”, a reference to a year without sick days. Photo courtesy of cdn.norecipes.com.

Many of these traditional foods are sweetened, pickled or fried so that they can keep for a few days without refrigeration (these delicacies precede the modern conveniences of today’s kitchen). The idea too, is to prepare enough food that leftovers will keep you out of the kitchen and with family for the duration of the holiday.

A gelatinous dessert made from azuki beans

Yokan, a delicious dessert made from fermented azuki beans was a favourite of mine as a child. Specialty Japanese and Asian grocery stores may carry Yokan this time of year. Totally worth indulging if you can find it! Image courtesy of kyoto-wagasi.com

2 Responses to Osechi-ryori– The Japanese New Year’s Feast

  1. Pat Millar says:

    Beautiful photos of this feast! My friend from LA is visiting and she asked who does the photos?

    • Midori Tanaka says:

      Thanks Pat! I was perpetually hungry while writing this post. The first 4 photos are credited to an amazing food blog, http://www.norecipes.com, run by a chef/photographer by the name of Marc Matsumoto. (You should now be able to click through to his site from the photos. If you want foodie inspiration, this is your ticket!) The last photo is credited to http://kyoto-wagasi.com – again great shots, but you’ll need to brush up on your Japanese if you’re looking for more info there…

      Happy, Happy New Year!

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