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.
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.
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.
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:-)