As I mentioned in my previous post about Japan’s New Year festivities, there are foods traditionally eaten in Japan around the New Year and since I wanted the Japanese New Year experience, there was no way I was missing out on this part of the fun!
The first food-related tradition we enjoyed was actually eaten on New Year’s Eve, or Omisoka (大晦日) as it is called in Japanese. On this day, it is tradition to eat a bowl of what is called toshikoshi-soba (年越しそば); the ‘toshikoshi’ part of the name basically means ‘passing from one year to the next.’ This dish consist of soba (buckwheat noodles) eaten plain or with the addition of scallions or tempura. Since soba noodles are long, they are thought to bring longevity. We decided to add a large helping of tempura to our bowls of soba. Delicious!
The main event in terms of Japanese New Year foods has to be osechi-ryori (御節料理). These are traditional New Year’s foods usually served in special boxes with several dividers. These boxes contain any combination of the many osechi dishes, each of which has its own significance. It was once considered bad luck to cook during the first three days of the new year, so these dishes are prepared by the end of the year and then eaten over the first three days of the new year. I am not sure how many people really follow the no cooking rule, but we decided to go ahead and observe it. After all, why not? It’s a nice little break from cooking (and the extra dishes that go along with it).
The osechi my husband and I ordered came in two separate boxes with the exact same dishes, one for each of us. You can see from the photo that there were so many different foods to try and unfortunately, it did not come with any guide to tell us exactly why each dish was significant. But here are the ones I know:
Dried anchovies symbolize a bountiful harvest and wealth since their kanji (田作り) means ‘making rice crops.’ Sweet mashed potato paste (kinton-an) translates to ‘golden dumpling’ and so symbolizes economic fortune. Cod fish was also included for prosperity.
Burdock roots are for physical strength and health because the burdock plant’s roots grow deep into the ground. Candied chestnuts are for preventing illness.
The color red symbolizes happiness while white symbolizes purity and the combination of these two colors is said to be auspicious so many foods are included simply for their color. For example, our boxes included red and white vinegar daikon and carrots (this was hidden under the salmon roe) as well as salmon with white soy sauce.
Since salmon and herring roe are eggs, you can probably guess their significance – fertility. The herring row has the extra aspect of being a pun; ‘nishin’ is both the name of herring and a way of reading the kanji for ‘two parents’ (二親).
Black soy beans symbolize working hard, health and strength, as well as getting rid of evil. This is at least partly based on a pun because ‘mame’ means ‘bean’ and also begins the idiom ‘mamenihataraku’ (まめにはたらく), which means ‘to work really hard.’
The chestnut with 寿, or ‘long life,’ stamped on it was, of course, for longevity. (However, in the Warring States period of history, warriors took dried chestnuts with them when they traveled and so at that time it symbolized victory.) The shrimp is also a symbol of longevity because it is said it is shaped like an elderly person who has lived long enough to be hunched over and have a long beard. (I’ll never look at shrimp the same way again!)
Walnuts symbolize family happiness because the hard shell forms a barrier that protects the family.
Sweet omelette roll mixed with fish paste looks like a scroll and so symbolizes scholarship, culture, and progress.
The tied kelp roll is called ‘kobumaki.’ The ‘kobu’ is a pun on ‘yorukobu,’ which means ‘to be happy,’ while the roll shape ‘maki’ means ‘to wrap up.’ Together, ‘kobumaki’ symbolizes wrapping up happiness.
Finally, the ‘plum and pine needles’ dish sticking up from the top of the box are a symbol of spring.
I thought when we began sampling these dishes that there would probably be a couple items that I would struggle to finish even though I was determined to eat every bit and thus obtain all the luck possible for the upcoming year. As it turned out though, most of the dishes were absolutely delicious and the couple that I didn’t care much for (sardines and herring roe) weren’t really bad…they’re just not something I’d seek out to eat again on my own.
These traditional New Year foods were both fun to experience and delicious to eat. Eating these foods is one tradition that I would love to keep through the years. So if you ever have the opportunity to experience osechi-ryori, I say go for it!