New Year’s in Japan is an electric time of year. Celebrations start in early December with “forget-the-year” bōnenkai parties, reach a fevered pitch during shōgatsu (January 1 through 3) and taper down in January with “New Year anticipation” shinnenkai parties through January. While bōnenkai and shinnenkai focus on friends, colleagues and Japan’s drinking culture, shōgatsu embraces family and tradition, a large part of which centers around osechi ryōri, the time-honored foods served on New Year’s Day.
Many Japanese partake in osechi out of respect for tradition rather than taste; osechi preparations were originally intended to stay safe at room temperature through early January so the cooks could rest. Thus, so many items have a lot of salt. Osechi meals range in style from simple to extravagant, and each preparation has its own cultural significance and symbolism built into it. Perhaps the most striking element of osechi is its presentation.
Jūbako, ornate, bento-like boxes used for osechi presentation, reflect elegant simplicity merged with extraordinary design and craftsmanship. Reserved for special occasions, jūbako have an aestheticism that has placed them in the permanent collections of world museums such as the MET in NYC.
Most modern Japanese families; however, delegate the creation of osechi to the retail sector by pre-ordering from restaurants and supermarkets. It’s not that osechi foods are difficult to prepare, but their composed presentations take a lot of time and dedication. Osechi that serves two to four people can range in price from around $100 at convenience stores to over $10,000 at high-end restaurants.
Osechi dishes largely use everyday ingredients, but again, it’s presentation over preparation here. While seafood, cooked, uncooked or preserved, is the star of osechi, dishes made from staple ingredients like rice, beans and eggs comprise the bulk of a typical menu.
Mains and Sides
- Ise ebi, a spiny variety of lobster with sweet, tender flesh
- Buri, or yellowtail
- Tai, or red sea bream
- Kazunoko, herring roe marinated in dashi and soy
- Ebi, or prawns
- Datemaki, a sweet, rolled omelet
- Chikuzenni, or braised chicken and carved vegetables
- Kamaboko, a type of molded surimi with salmon roe
- Tazukuri, or immature sardines toasted and caramelized in honey and soy sauce
- Kobumaki, or minced fish rolled in kelp
- Kuromame, a type of sweetened black soybeans
- Ozoni, mochi in dashi or miso broth; secondary ingredients vary by region (served separately in a bowl)
- Namasu, daikon and carrot salad
- Mizu yokan, a chilled red-bean jelly with chestnuts
- Namagashi, a variety of snacks made from ingredients such as gelatins, sticky rice and kanten jelly
- Yuzu ice cream, citrus-based ice cream often served with marmalade
Every item served as osechi ryōri transcends taste and appearance by invoking an ideal, concept or principle through its preparation and presentation. Much of osechi’s symbolism has passed through generations dating to the osechiku, a seasonal celebration established by the Imperial Court during the early Heian Period (794-1185).
While osechi itself has long history, Osechi ryōri as presented today, with formal presentation in jūbako, originated around the mid-19th century. Find out more about the deeper meanings behind osechi ryōri here.