Japanese culture and symbolism intertwine almost to the point of singularity. The simple cherry blossom, for example, represents brevity of life, spring and spiritual renewal, among other abstract concepts. During special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and memorial days, food and drink serve as vehicles of this symbolism. Osechi ryōri — the food served as part of a three-day New Year’s celebration — conveys complex symbolism in foods both common and luxurious.
Osechi ryōri celebrations date back over a thousand years, long before the advent of refrigeration. As a result, many foods were traditionally prepared with preservation in mind. Cured and candied dishes commonly make up the majority of osechi ryōri. With osechi ryōri, every dish symbolizes a positive physical trait, concept, ideal or principle.
Due to its expense and association with wealth, seafood is the star of Japanese New Year fare. Prime varieties like spiny lobster and prawns are the focal point of the traditional serving vessel, the jūbako box.
- Ise ebi, or the spiny lobster, lives as long as 20 years, making it a natural symbol for longevity. Its long, trailing whiskers grow longer as the lobster ages and represent a long life.
- Buri, a mature yellowtail species of fish, signifies professional growth in the coming year. The symbolism stems from the name changes attributed to the fish as it matures.
- Tai, a red seabream, represents something that might have diminished over time but still maintains class and dignity. It also represents the growth of wealth and general good health, as “tai” is part of “medetai,” which roughly translates as auspicious and joyous.
- Ebi, or jumbo prawns cooked in sake and soy sauce, symbolize a long life and happiness in old age. The whiskers and curve of the prawn suggest a bent-over old man and are partly responsible for its symbolism.
Osechi ryōri includes an abundance of side dishes made from common Japanese staples such as beans, rice and other starches. Although the ingredients are simple, their painstaking preparation — which can include carving, gelatinizing and extracting — is anything but.
- Datemaki, a petite rolled omelet made with fish paste, represents success in academics and learning, in part due to its similarity to a scroll of parchment.
- Chikuzenni, a simmered chicken and vegetable dish, represents various attributes depending on its ingredients. The sliced lotus root in the dish, for example, symbolizes good foresight in the coming year because of the ring of holes that run through the root.
- Kōhaku kamaboko, pink-and-white fish cakes molded to resemble the rising sun of the Japanese flag, are believed to protect against evil and cleanse the spirit.
- Tazukuri, dried sardines in caramelized soy sauce, promise abundant harvests, as the Japanese once used fish as fertilizer in the rice fields.
- Konbu maki, a maki roll wrapped in konbu, has an association with the word yorokobu and represents joy. It’s usually stuffed with salmon or herring and slow-cooked in dashi, mirin and soy sauce before being tied with a ribbon-like strip of gourd.
- Kurikinton, whipped sweet potatoes with candied chestnuts, has a golden color and symbolizes wealth and good fortune.
- Kuromame, are simply black beans and symbolize the ability to perform productive, hard work — a tenet of Japanese culture.
- Kazunoko, tiny yellow-herring eggs marinated in dashi, represent fertility, largely because one egg sac contains as many as 20,000 eggs.
Westerners might not culturally understand the symbolism of osechi ryōri as innately as the native Japanese. However, they can understand it cognitively. That is to say, you can take note of the osechi ryōri symbolism and embrace the dishes for what they are: exceptional special-occasion foods that are as delightfully appealing in the U.S. as they are in Japan.