Much like Christmas in many western countries, New Year’s is a time for family in Japan. No ball drops and champagne popping over here, just time spent with family huddled under the kotatsu, eating mikan and watching New Year’s specials on TV. There are many New Year’s traditions in Japan, but the most delicious tradition is the eating of osechi ryori, special food eaten to give thanks and wish for happiness and prosperity in the new year.
Osechi ryori is characterized by an array of colorful dishes packed together in special boxes called jubako, which are eaten communally on New Year’s Day. Since New Year’s is a time for rest in Japan (according to tradition, nothing should be cooked on New Year’s Day), preparation of osechi ryori is typically finished before New Year’s Eve. Many of the dishes are either dried or contain a lot of sugar or vinegar to preserve the food and enough is made to last a few days.
Osechi ryori is arguably the most important meal of the year, each dish serving as a symbol or wish for the coming year. The food is even eaten in a special way by using chopsticks that are rounded on both ends; one side for humans to use, one side for the gods. Let’s take a look at the meanings behind some of the traditional osechi ryori foods.
Kuromame, black soy beans (seasoned with sugar and soy sauce)
In Japanese, the word for bean, “mame,” also sounds like the word for “hard work and good health.” Eating this food during New Year’s is a symbol of good health for the coming year.
Kazunoko, herring roe
Herring roe contains many tiny eggs in a tight cluster and is eaten as a wish for an abundant harvest and fertility.
Tazukuri, dried anchovies
Tazukuri literally translates as “making rice crops” and eating these tiny fish on New Year’s symbolizes a bountiful harvest.
Goubo, burdock root (seasoned with sesame or vinegar)
Because the roots of the burdock plant grow deep into the ground and also represent a crane (the symbol of a fruitful year), burdock is eaten as a wish for good health and an abundant harvest.
Datemaki (sweet omelet mixed with fish paste or shrimp)
Because datemaki looks like a scroll, eating this dish on New Year’s is a wish for scholarship and culture.
Kouhaku kamaboko, Japanese fishcake
The shape of kamaboko is said to resemble the first sunrise of the New Year. In addition, the pink (red) and white color of kamaboko is a good omen because the color red is believed to be a talisman against evil and white signifies purity.
Kuri kinton, mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts
The word “kinton” means golden dumpling and is used to symbolize treasures of gold and silver. Eating kuri kinton is a wish for economic fortune in the new year.
Yakizakana, grilled fish
Grilled fish is eaten as a prayer for a successful career. Some fish have other specific meanings as well. For example, eating grilled sea bream is a wish for happiness and eating grilled eel is a prayer for the success of rapid promotion.
Because of their long antennae and curved body (like the curved back of the elderly), shrimp are a symbol of longevity and are eaten during the new year. Shrimp are also a symbol of renewing life because the animal molts its skin.
Subasu, vinegar lotus root
Lotus root, with its many holes, is a symbol of an unobstructed view of the future.
Kouhaku namasu, red and white vinegar daikon and carrots
This dish represents a mizuhiki, a decorative cord made out of twisted rice paper that is used on special occasions. Red and white is a persistent color scheme in many osechi dishes, symbolizing a good omen.
Konbu Maki, dried herring wrapped in seaweed
The word, “konbu,” is a play on words meaning, “to be happy.” Much like the rolled shape of datemaki, the shape of konbu maki symbolizes a wish for scholarship and culture.
One taro plant produces many taro roots and has come to symbolize a prayer for children.
Kuwai (root of the Sagittaria plant, also known as “Katniss” in the US)
Because the kuwai plant begins to sprout with a single root, it is said to be an auspicious sign. The single sprout also symbolizes a successful career.
Cuttlefish is known as symbol of celebration.
Nishiki tamago, Brocade Egg
Boiled egg is separated and strained through a fine sieve and mixed with sugar and salt. The fine pieces of yolk and white are then packed into a mold and lightly steamed. The bright and festive yellow and white colors of nishiki tamago make it a New Year’s staple.
Otafuku mame, Large Broad Bean
The kanji for “many” and “fortune” is used in the name of this dish that represents an invitation for good fortune.
Hoshigaki, Dried Persimmon
Because the skin of dried persimmon resembles the wrinkled skin of an old person, dried persimmons are eaten as a wish for a long life.
Daidai, Japanese Bitter Orange
The word, “dai dai” can also mean “from generation to generation.” Eating daidai fruit during the New Year signifies a wish for children.