Food with meaning... 'Osechi', the Japanese New Year cuisine
by Takehiko 'Riko' Hashimoto, 2 January 2020
‘Osechi-ryōri’ or simply ‘osechi’ is a special type of Japanese food prepared for the New Year celebrations. It is an assortment of colourful and contrasting dishes, each symbolising a particular kind of wish for the new year. The custom originated around the Heian Period (8th to 12th centuries) through a fusion of ancient Japanese agrarian ceremonies with the traditional Chinese seasonal calendar based on the concepts of yin yang and wu xing.
The symbolism within each ‘osechi’ dish may relate to the shape, form or colour of the ingredients used, or the sound of the word for the ingredients used. For example, the curved shape of a cooked prawn resembles the bent back of old people, therefore is symbolic of a long and fulfilling life. Black soy beans symbolise a productive working year as the Japanese word for beans ‘mame’ has the same sound as another word that means ‘diligent’.
CLASSIC OSECHI DISHES AND THEIR SYMBOLISM
Kuromame (stewed black soybean): WORK, from the similarity in sound between the words for ‘bean’ and ‘diligent’ (‘mame’)
Kazunoko (marinated herring roe): FERTILITY, alluding to the number of tiny eggs comprising the roe
Tazukuri (sweet-soy candied sardine): HARVEST, from the traditional practice of using small fry (fish) as a fertiliser
Tataki gobō (beaten burdock root): LUCK, from the ‘opening up’ of the hard-textured root by beating; STABILITY and LONGEVITY, alluding to the very long and deep root of the burdock plant
Kamaboko (steamed fish cake): NEW BEGINNING, e.g. marriage, employment, from the resemblance of the semi-circular shape of kamaboko to the sun rising from the horizon
Nishiki tamago (sweet egg cakes): CELEBRATION, from the combination of gold and silver (actually white) colours regarded as auspicious; WEALTH, alluding to the precious metals of gold and silver
Kobumaki (stewed konbu rolls): HAPPINESS, from similarity in sound between the word ‘kobu’ (konbu) and the ending of the word for ‘being happy or joyous’ or ‘yorokobu’
Kuri kinton (sweet chestnut paste): BUSINESS, alluding to the colour of the chestnut that resembles gold or coins
Ebi (prawn): LONGEVITY, from the similarity in the bent form of a cooked prawn and an elderly person
Tai (bream): CELEBRATION, alluding to the similarity in sound between the fish’s name in Japanese and the ending of the word for ‘auspicious’ (‘medetai’).
Buri (yellowtail, amberjack): PROGRESS, from the fact that the Japanese name for the fish changes according to the stage in fish’s life
Renkon (stewed or vinegared lotus root): DIRECTION, alluding to the holes running through the lotus root signifying a ‘clear road ahead’ in life
Takenoko (stewed bamboo shoot): CHILDREN, comparing the rapid growth of bamboo shoots to that of healthy children
Kōhaku namasu (vinegared carrot and daikon salad): CELEBRATION, from the combination of red (actually orange) and white colours regarded as being auspicious
Kikuka kabu (chrysanthemum-cut vinegared baby turnip): LONGEVITY, alluding to the long-lasting chrysanthemum flower
From left to right: kobumaki, nishiki tamago, and kikuka daikon (turnip substituted with daikon)
Osechi can be time-consuming to prepare. Traditionally, the family gets together to start preparing a week or more before New Year’s Day. Just before New Year, the dishes are packed into red and black-lacquered boxes for a spectacular visual effect. Osechi is enjoyed with family and friends over the three days of New Year celebrations. The preparation methods for osechi dishes represented a way to preserve food over the entire New Year period, in the days when refrigeration was not readily available.
These days, it is common for Japanese families to purchase ready-made osechi sets from caterers or even supermarkets. However, if you have the time and patience, making your own osechi at home is a satisfying experience. Outside Japan, some ingredients are difficult to source, however, many dishes can be prepared using items from your local shops. An assortment of just a few dishes can achieve a great visual effect that is sure to provide a talking point in your Festive Season entertaining.
OUR HOME-MADE AUSSIE OSECHI SELECTION, 1 JANUARY 2020
Clockwise from the left:
Kikuka daikon—baby turnips substituted with daikon and coloured naturally with beetroot
Kobumaki—using premium konbu from Hokkaido and filled with tender local fish fillet
Ebi-kamaboko—combining the two dishes of kamaboko and prawn by making the ‘fish cake’ from local prawn meat
Nishiki tamago—using fresh local organic egg
Kuromame—Japanese black soybeans substituted with American black turtle beans
Datemaki—using fresh local organic egg and minced local fish
Great washed down with some Aussie sake… the rather sweet flavours of Go-shu Junmai sake pairing brilliantly with the seafood and egg in the osechi dishes…
Deeply Regional Japan’s COOKING CLASSES IN CANBERRA AND MELBOURNE feature several osechi recipes. Please visit https://www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/food-education-home for details on our classes. During 2020, we will also launch COOKING TOURS TO REGIONAL AND RURAL JAPAN like none other, where you can learn healthy traditional everyday cooking that the Japanese have enjoyed for millennia in your private accommodation situated in picturesque villages, while enjoying a truly ‘off-the beaten track’ travel experience away from tourist crowds. Please check our website www.deeplyregionaljapan.com over the coming weeks for the latest updates on our exciting cooking tours and a lot more, thank you!