Osechi Ryori (Traditional Japanese New Years Meal)

Japanese New Years Spread
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! Happy New Year!

Japanese culture is steeped in over a thousand years of tradition and protocol and food is no exception. Ingredients, preparations and even colors each have their own story, symbolism and seasonal importance. It’s no surprise then that oshogatsu (New Years), has its own set of foods that are specially prepared for the big day.

Oshogatsu is Japan’s biggest holiday and is analogous to Christmas in the US. People return to their hometowns to be with their family, and children are given little envelopes filled with money from relatives and acquaintances. On New Years Eve, families gather at shrines to make their first visit for the year right at midnight and to pray for a year filled with good luck and happiness.

Another New Years Eve tradition is to eat toshi koshi soba which literally translates to “year crossing soba”. The noodles are extra long to symbolize long-life and are served in a simple warm dashi broth with a piece of red and white (more like pink and white) kamaboko and some scallions.

Because of the risk of cutting or burning yourself while cooking (which could lead to a year of misfortune), osechi ryori is always prepared in advance of the new year. Since refrigerators and microwaves are relatively recent advents, many of the foods are vinegared, dried or salted to aid in preservation and are eaten at room temperature.

Nimono with shiitake, koya dofu, taro, carrot and sugar peas.

These days, few families in Japan make their own osechi and instead opt for the elaborate pre-made boxes available everywhere from 7-Elevens to fancy department stores. The most revered kitchens are able to fetch as much as $2000 per set!

Growing up in the US, my mother cooked osechi-ryori almost every year and it was always something I looked forward to because of the extra care that went into it. Last year (before I started this blog), I made my own osechi ryori and since I’m in Japan this year and can’t do a blog-worthy pass at it, I decided to share some photos from last year’s meal.

Osechi Ryori on a lacqured plate
Starting at top left:

Datemaki – A sweet egg omelet made with eggs, sugar, mirin and fish paste is wrapped and bound in a makisu to give it a ribbed exterior. The golden yellow slices symbolize a wish for sunny days ahead. Another interpretation is that it symbolizes knowledge because the rolled shape looks like a scroll.

Gomame – Dried baby sardines that have been cooked in mirin, sugar and soy sauce then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Because of the large number of tiny fish, it symbolizes a bountiful harvest.

Kurikinton – This is a mashed chestnut and sweet potato paste that’s mixed with a sugar syrup. It’s supposed to be a golden color which symbolizes wealth, but unfortunately mine turned out brown, so I put it in some hollowed out yuzu for some extra flavor and effect.

Kamaboko – Colored fishcake. Traditionally you alternate layers of red kamaboko with white kamaboko which is supposed to symbolize the rising sun.

Kazunoko – This is probably my favourite part of of this meal. It’s herring roe that’s cured in light soy sauce and dashi with some red chili flakes. The many tiny eggs symbolize fertility. If you like tobiko you’ll probably like kazunoko as it has a similar crunchy texture.

Osechi Ryori, burdock, daikon, carrots, black beans and turnip
Starting at the top left:

Tataki Gobo – literally means “beaten burdock”. This preparation softens the burdock and makes it readily absorb the sesame vinaigrette it’s seasoned with. Burdock is a long slender taproot and is symbolic of the way life should be lived according to the Japanese.

Kikka Kabu - or “chrysanthemum turnip” is a block of turnip that’s been cross cut and soaked in brine and vinegar to blossom into a flower with a small piece of red chili in the middle. Not only are the colors symbolic, the chrysanthemum is the royal seal of the imperial family.

Kohaku Namasu – Shredded white daikon with “red” carrots are pickled in vinegar to make a colorful salad.

Okara – I’m not really sure what this dish is called, but it’s made with okara (bean curd lees), carrots, and shiitake mushrooms simmered with soy sauce, dashi, mirin and sugar.

Kuromame – or “black beans” is a dish made with black soy beans (not to be confused with western black beans) simmered in a thick brown sugar syrup. It’s thought to have medicinal values and is a symbol of good health.

I’m currently traveling around Asia looking for new foods and new inspirations to share with you. This post was written and scheduled ahead of time. As such, I may take a while to respond to your comments and questions but I’ll get to them as soon as I return:-)

  • http://joiedevivreanamateurgourmetsguide.blogspot.com/ Joie de vivre

    Have you ever heard of Kuromame being cooked with a rusty nail in the pot? Do you know the origins of this cooking technique or what it symbolizes? Very nice post, very informative.

  • http://joiedevivreanamateurgourmetsguide.blogspot.com/ Joie de vivre

    Have you ever heard of Kuromame being cooked with a rusty nail in the pot? Do you know the origins of this cooking technique or what it symbolizes? Very nice post, very informative.

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com/ Daily Spud

    Fascinating stuff, am always interested to learn about the symbolism of food in different cultures (as well as how it’s made :) )

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com Daily Spud

    Fascinating stuff, am always interested to learn about the symbolism of food in different cultures (as well as how it’s made :) )

  • http://www.everydaycookin.blogspot.com/ Darius T. Williams

    Looks like an amazing meal for new years!

    -Darius
    http://www.everydaycookin.com

  • http://www.everydaycookin.blogspot.com Darius T. Williams

    Looks like an amazing meal for new years!

    -Darius
    http://www.everydaycookin.com

  • http://www.palatetopen.com/ Jen

    What a beautiful meal! Thanks for all of these interesting tidbits. I love the symbolism of each culinary trinket. Happy New Year!

  • http://www.palatetopen.com Jen

    What a beautiful meal! Thanks for all of these interesting tidbits. I love the symbolism of each culinary trinket. Happy New Year!

  • http://www.applepiepatispate.com/ Jude

    Kinton is good stuff… It’s my favorite thing to make with sweet potatoes.
    Clicked your link… 2000 for dinner? Not good to start the year broke :)

  • http://www.applepiepatispate.com Jude

    Kinton is good stuff… It’s my favorite thing to make with sweet potatoes.
    Clicked your link… 2000 for dinner? Not good to start the year broke :)

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com/ Manggy

    Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! The spread is unbelievably beautiful! Did you make the kamaboko yourself? The pattern is gorgeous.

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com Manggy

    Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! The spread is unbelievably beautiful! Did you make the kamaboko yourself? The pattern is gorgeous.

  • http://www.sugarbar.org/ diva

    i was about to say, i thought a new year’s meal would be eating soba right when the clock says it’s new year’s! what a beautiful new year’s meal..hope you had a great one!
    i welcomed the new year eating a lot of soba, and then stuffing my face on new year’s day itself at a high tea buffet. ;) i’m kinda regretting that we didn’t have something more amazing like this. x

  • http://www.sugarbar.org diva

    i was about to say, i thought a new year’s meal would be eating soba right when the clock says it’s new year’s! what a beautiful new year’s meal..hope you had a great one!
    i welcomed the new year eating a lot of soba, and then stuffing my face on new year’s day itself at a high tea buffet. ;) i’m kinda regretting that we didn’t have something more amazing like this. x

  • http://www.kyotofoodie.com/ Peko P

    Hello Marc,

    Akemashite, Omedetogozaimasu. Honnen mo dozoyoroshikuonegaishimasu!

    Datemaki looks like that of a REAL pro. Nice!

    Wow, I had not heard the osechi angle on a year of misfortune if you burn or cut yourself first thing in the new year.

    At KF we did some osechi/osogatsu food articles, still have two more on the way.

    A happy new year to you!

    P

  • http://www.kyotofoodie.com Peko P

    Hello Marc,

    Akemashite, Omedetogozaimasu. Honnen mo dozoyoroshikuonegaishimasu!

    Datemaki looks like that of a REAL pro. Nice!

    Wow, I had not heard the osechi angle on a year of misfortune if you burn or cut yourself first thing in the new year.

    At KF we did some osechi/osogatsu food articles, still have two more on the way.

    A happy new year to you!

    P

  • http://inomthings.blogspot.com/ ila

    Beautiful, beautiful osechi!
    So beautiful, I actually linked your osechi post on mine, I hope you don’t mind.

    We hardly had any ichi-no-juu stuff because my Dad doesn’t like vinegary foods :[

  • http://inomthings.blogspot.com ila

    Beautiful, beautiful osechi!
    So beautiful, I actually linked your osechi post on mine, I hope you don’t mind.

    We hardly had any ichi-no-juu stuff because my Dad doesn’t like vinegary foods :[

  • Jane

    thank you so much for the beautiful post and detail about the osechi ryori.

  • Jane

    thank you so much for the beautiful post and detail about the osechi ryori.

  • http://allthingsnice.typepad.com/ Syrie

    Marc, I’m dying to go Japan. The food, culture and history fascinates me. Thanks so much for this informative and inspiring post. You are truly talented!

  • http://allthingsnice.typepad.com Syrie

    Marc, I’m dying to go Japan. The food, culture and history fascinates me. Thanks so much for this informative and inspiring post. You are truly talented!

  • marc

    Joie de vivre, I’ve heard of the rusty nail thing, but I’m not sure what it’s for. I did a bit of googling and it sounds like it may have something to do with the color, but honestly I think mine turned out just fine sans the nail.

    Daily spud, I was in Japan this year, but next year if I’m around I’ll cook a more elaborate osechi spread and post recipes.

    Thanks Darius!

    Jen, almost all japanese food has some symbolism behind it. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about it:-)

    Jude, yea I’m the first one to dish out top dollar for good food, but 2 grand is a little ridiculous. This year I went to a depachika (lit. department basement) where they have awesome food stalls and picked up a $150 osechi set on clearance at the end of the day for only $100.

    Manggy, I wasn’t quite that ambitious, but I now I may have to try for next year:-)

    Diva, toshikoshi soba is usually eaten for new years eve while osechi ryori is consumed on new years day. I was in japan this year, but skipped the soba in favour of getting smashed at an izakaya along with lots of food:-)

    Thanks Peko P, the cutting burning thing was what my mom used to tell me, but maybe this is an inaka thing? Your oshogatsu series is great!

    Thanks for the link Ila! Your osechi looks great as well. I saw a new years special while in japan that showed different ozoni’s from all over japan and the variety was amazing. I forget where, but there was one region that put anko in their mochi and there was another where you dipped the mochi from the ozoni into kinako.

    Thanks Jane:-)

    Thanks Syrie! Having just returned I can say that it truly is a foodie’s paradise (but then again so is the rest of asia). It’s not the just the Japanese food, you can get good italian, french, indian and just about any other kind of food.

  • marc

    Joie de vivre, I’ve heard of the rusty nail thing, but I’m not sure what it’s for. I did a bit of googling and it sounds like it may have something to do with the color, but honestly I think mine turned out just fine sans the nail.

    Daily spud, I was in Japan this year, but next year if I’m around I’ll cook a more elaborate osechi spread and post recipes.

    Thanks Darius!

    Jen, almost all japanese food has some symbolism behind it. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about it:-)

    Jude, yea I’m the first one to dish out top dollar for good food, but 2 grand is a little ridiculous. This year I went to a depachika (lit. department basement) where they have awesome food stalls and picked up a $150 osechi set on clearance at the end of the day for only $100.

    Manggy, I wasn’t quite that ambitious, but I now I may have to try for next year:-)

    Diva, toshikoshi soba is usually eaten for new years eve while osechi ryori is consumed on new years day. I was in japan this year, but skipped the soba in favour of getting smashed at an izakaya along with lots of food:-)

    Thanks Peko P, the cutting burning thing was what my mom used to tell me, but maybe this is an inaka thing? Your oshogatsu series is great!

    Thanks for the link Ila! Your osechi looks great as well. I saw a new years special while in japan that showed different ozoni’s from all over japan and the variety was amazing. I forget where, but there was one region that put anko in their mochi and there was another where you dipped the mochi from the ozoni into kinako.

    Thanks Jane:-)

    Thanks Syrie! Having just returned I can say that it truly is a foodie’s paradise (but then again so is the rest of asia). It’s not the just the Japanese food, you can get good italian, french, indian and just about any other kind of food.

  • http://www.notquitenigella.com/ Lorraine E

    Fantastically detailed NYE spread! We did something similar but nowhere near as detailed as this. Happy 2009 Marc! :)

  • http://www.notquitenigella.com Lorraine E

    Fantastically detailed NYE spread! We did something similar but nowhere near as detailed as this. Happy 2009 Marc! :)

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com/ [eatingclub] vancouver || js

    I’m a little late to the party here, but I have to say this is such a gorgeous spread of food. Thanks for illuminating Japanese New Year’s traditions!

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com [eatingclub] vancouver || js

    I’m a little late to the party here, but I have to say this is such a gorgeous spread of food. Thanks for illuminating Japanese New Year’s traditions!

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  • http://foodhuntress.blogspot.com/ enrisa marie

    Umai, suteki na ranchi desu ne, oishisouda na :)

  • http://foodhuntress.blogspot.com enrisa marie

    Umai, suteki na ranchi desu ne, oishisouda na :)

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  • http://acookingmizer.wordpress.com/ Alice

    ozouni is my favorite Japanese new years dish! We grew up in the US also and I insisted that my mom make this for me every new years! Do you like it too?

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Yep, I love ozouni! There are so many variations though by region, how does your family make it?

  • Elizabeth_pardoe

    hey, is sushi prepared in Japanese new year? please reply asap! Thank you.

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Sushi isn’t really something people make a home too much, since traditionally osechi ryori is something made at home, sushi is not a traditional new years dish.

      • Elizabeth_pardoe

        Thank you, do you know what kind of cultural events that involve sushi? please reply asap :)

        • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

          There isn’t really any holiday in particular that we eat sushi, but until relatively recently it was a pretty expensive food, so for lower income people it was eaten on special occasions such as birthdays.

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