Growing up, there were several traditions in our house when it came to ringing in the New Year, a few of which inevitably involved food.
When the clock struck twelve, we all shared hugs and kisses and exchanged best wishes for the New Year. And then without delay, the bowls of grapes were carted out, 12 for each person, along with an accompanying glass of champagne (or Martinelli’s for the kids).
Then the following day, New Years Day, the menu included the mandatory meal of black eyed peas, accompanied more often than not by collard greens and rice.
Suffice to say, when I found myself in Japan for oshōgatsu(New Years), the only things resembling my age-old traditions was am abundance of rice and boiled beans (though not of the black eyed variety.)
I think I should also say that since my time in Japan, my new New Years tradition will probably involve a whole lot more than just grapes, champagne, and beans and rice from now on. That’s thanks to osechi ryōri.
Osechi ryōri(おせち料理) consists of the traditional dishes eaten in Japan on New Year’s Day. The history of osechi ryōristretches back to the early ninth century during the Heian period. As time went on, however, the tradition shifted from its simple origins to include arrays of colorful dishes presented in jūbako(重箱), or multi-tiered lacquer boxes. As with the dishes held within them, the multi-tiered boxes are symbolic, representing a family’s hopes for wealth and prosperity in the year to come.
Being that New Years has traditionally been considered a time of rest (and a time to not disturb the gods with the commotion of a cook fire), the preparations for osechi ryōri are usually completed in the days leading up to New Years. They are then left in their jūbakountil families gather around on the first of January for a feast. As a result, many of the preparations are simple and involve ingredients like soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar as a way to preserve the foods in the long wait.
The styles, preparations and osechidishes themselves can vary based on which part of the country you’re in and even which family you’re celebrating with, but there are still some dishes that stand out as the go-to’s for any New Years meal. Each dish has its own origin as well as its own meaning in the context of the New Years celebration and are organized in the jūbakoaccording to preparation.
Jūbakocan consist of two, three, or even four* tiers. The order of tiers in osechi can coincide with Japan’s kaisekicuisine, a multi-course meal involving small, elegant, seasonally inspired dishes.
Here is a sample of a plentiful four-tiered jūbakoand the symbolic meanings behind each dish.
The First Tier (一の重)
This first tier can be reserved for small celebratory dishes known as iwai-zakana(祝い肴).
Considered to be good for one’s health, these beans express the wish to be able to work hard in the year to come. Simmered in sugar and soy sauce (sometimes for up to eight hours), the soy beans take on a rich glossy, black glaze, a great contrast to the jūbako’sred interior. Some recipes also call for a couple of rusty nails as the iron oxide reacts with the tannins in the beans to deepen the black color.
Crunchy in texture and salty in taste, kazunoko, or herring roe, is one of the most popular osechidishes. The kanji used in the name of this dish are kazu, meaning number, and ko, meaning children, so as one might expect, this dish brings a wish for a healthy family and many children to come. Well at least that was the case when more hands were needed on the farm, anyway.
Made from candied baby sardines, this dish is symbolic of a bountiful harvest. The name of the dish even means making rice paddies when translated directly, as sardines were once used as a fertilizer.
Just like the root of the burdock plant, or gobōin Japanese, grows deep into the ground, this dish represents the wish for good health and a strong, stable home. The symbolism extends into the preparation of the dish as well. When the roots are pounded the ends split, which is thought to multiply one’s good fortune in the year to come. Boiled and simmered in a soy and dashi broth, then dressed in a sesame sauce, this makes for quite a delicious bite.
The Second Tier (二の重)
The next tier is made up of dishes prepared with vinegar, or sunomono(酢の物) and other appetizers or hors d’oeuvres known as kuchi-tori(口取り)
The golden color of this mixture of mashed Japanese sweet potato and candied chestnut symbolizes a wish for wealth and economic prosperity in the New Year.
A play on words, kobumaki is made by wrapping a type of seaweed known as konbu or kobu,around various ingredients. The play on words comes from the word for joy, yorokobu, symbolizing a wish for happiness, as well as a kanji combination representing child birth,子生or kobu, making this dish also one about youth and longevity.
Kōhaku Kamaboko (紅白かまぼこ)
Quite simple in principle, this dish of red and white fish cake known as kamaboko, gets its symbolism from its presentation. While the standard half-moon slices are seen as representative of the first sunrise of the New Year, the fish cake can be carved into intricate designs to add layers of symbolism to the otherwise simple dish.
Kōhaku Namasu (紅白なます)
As seen in the previous dish, the colors red and white (kōhaku) are symbolic in Japanese culture, most noticeably in the national flag. In Japanese culture, red is seen as a charm against evil spirits while white is associated with purity. Together they symbolize good luck, which is the wish this dish will bring in the New Year.
Slightly fluffier and more sweet than its cousin tamagoyaki, this rolled omelette represents the knowledge stored away in scrolls and texts and thus the wish for a successful year of scholarship. The omelette is made by first mixing eggs with hanpen(a type of fish paste) and a kind of Japanese yam called yamaimo. Sweeteners like mirin and honey are added among a few other ingredients, before it is grilled and then rolled up to set into its signature scroll-like shape.
The Third Tier (三の重)
In the third compartment of the jūbakoone might find grilled fish and other seafood, considered part of the yakimono (焼き物) course.
Stemming from a play on words with medetai(happy and auspicious), the red sea bream, or tai, is associated with joyous, congratulatory occasions. It is for this reason the fish is usually served on New Years and other important, celebratory occasions. A popular preparation for taiis to grill and serve it whole, known as tai-sugatayaki(鯛姿焼き).
The buriis an adult yellowtail fish associated with success in life and particularly in one’s job. This is due to the fact that buri are part of a group of fish known as a shusse-uo(出世魚) or fish whose names change based on which stage of life they’re in. When literally translated, however, it means a fish that has been promoted, probably a situation many people are hoping for in the New Year.
Due to the fact that their backs bend when boiled (like the elderly as they grow older) and they have long whiskers like an old man’s beard, shrimp, or ebi, are eaten as a wish for longevity.
The Fourth Tier (与の重)
In the last and final tier of the box, there are stewed or boiled dishes called nimono(煮物). These usually consist of dishes made from mountain and root vegetables.
Symbolizing a long and steady career like the long single tuber that sprouts from the aquatic plant, kuwai is usually simmered in a broth of dashi, sugar, mirin, and soy sauce and served simply as it is.
A dish served throughout the year, chikuzenni, a simmered dish of chicken and vegetables, is often spruced up for the New Year by cutting the vegetables and konnyaku (a gelatinous food made from the root of the konjac plant) into intricate designs. Generally speaking, root vegetables symbolize a long, happy life like their roots that stretch deep into the earth. Renkon, or lotus root, in particular has a special meaning in that its many holes symbolize a clear, unobstructed view into the future.
More recognizably known as the taro root, the satoimo is a tuber whose many sprouting roots branch down from one to another like a parent to a child to a grandchild, as it spreads out deep into the earth. As a result, the root finds its way onto New Years tables as a wish for a prosperous family and many children.
So maybe this New Years, give your old traditions a break and start the year in a different way. Spend New Year’s Eve stewing some chikuzennior rolling some datemaki.Maybe spend a quite New Year’s Day with family or friends gathered around an array of small dishes, enjoying the moment spent together as much as the food itself. And who knows, maybe that kurikintonmight just bring you the little extra luck you’re hoping for.
And by all means, this is not a conclusive list of dishes to be celebrated on oshōgatsu. There are plenty more to find and experience, and we haven’t even touched on the desserts!
Also, keep an eye out for a post coming soon about the tradition of pounding mochi for the New Year and the many ways the sweet rice cakes are eaten for oshōgatsu.
*Japanese note: A different kanji is used for the fourth box as four,四, has an ominous connotation in Japanese culture due to a shared pronunciation shiwith the character for death,死.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories still lingering fresh in his mind. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing, food, and Japanese culture.