おせち料理 / Osechi-ryōri (New Year’s Food) -Welcome the New Year in Japanese style-
At Christmas time we eat Western style foods and cakes, but over the New Year the choice is clear, Japanese food. Even for Japanese people living in Australia, this is the one time in the year that is particularly important and a time they like to spend relaxing and eating osechi-ryōri. Osechi-ryōri are foods that are traditionally eaten by Japanese people over the New Year and hold specific meanings. From traditional to modern osechi-ryōri, and even to osechi-ryōri that can be enjoyed here in Adelaide, we introduce some ideas to enjoy the celebrative foods of the New Year.
One of the essential parts of the New Year season is of course osechi-ryōri. These foods are well known for their flamboyancy and their ability to preserve well without refrigeration, however the concept originated as an offering to the deities of the New Year as part of the New Year festival, one of five seasonal festivals (also including Children’s DayKodomo-no-hi), Doll’s Festival (Hina-matsuri), Star Festival (Tanabata) and the Double Ninth (Chōyō) Festival celebrating the changing of seasons. Of these five seasonal festivals, New Year is the most significant and because of this cooking was restricted. This, together with the belief that eating special New Year’s foods brought prosperity to the family, led to the spread of the custom of osechi-ryōri. It is easily served to guests who visit over the New Year and each of the different foods, such as kuro-mame, kuri-kinton and kazunoko, hold different meanings and bring good luck.
●Kuro-mame (Black soybeans)
Kuro-mame, or black soybeans, are served sweetly boiled in osechi-ryōri. It is believed that black holds the power to ward against evil and summon good health. The word ‘mame’ also means diligent and carries with it the meaning of hard working and living healthily.
Kuri-kinton is sweet boiled chestnuts in mashed sweet potato. The word kinton means ‘golden dumpling’. As it looks like a chunk of gold it is believed that kuri-kinton will help you to acquire assets.
●Kazu-no-ko (Herring roe)
The word ‘kazu’ means number and the word ‘ko’ means child or children. As the name suggests, eating kazu-no-ko over New Year is believed to bring good fortune to your children and descendants. Another belief is that it will bring you fertility.
●Konbu-maki (fish rolled in kelp seaweed)
Konbu-maki is thick kelp seaweed (konbu) that has been wrapped around fish meat and then cooked in a sweet and spicy sauce. Konbu is also known as ‘kobu’ and this associates it with the word ‘yorokobu’ which means pleasure or happiness; so eating konbu-maki is said to bring great happiness.
●Ebi-no-yakimono (Grilled Prawns)
With their long whiskers and curved backs, prawns look like very old people. Because of this, eating prawns is believed to bring a long life.
Tazukuri (also known as ‘Gomame’) are dried anchovies that have been cooked in a sweet soy sauce and chilli mixture. The literal translation of the word tazukuri means ‘rice paddy maker’ and historically anchovies and sardines were used as a high-grade fertiliser for rice fields. The meaning associated with this type of osechi-ryōri is to bring a rich harvest.
Kōhaku-kamaboko is red and white coloured steamed fish paste (similar to seafood extender). The red depicts happiness and good wishes while the white represents a pure clean heart.
●Lenkon (Lotus root)
It is believed that the holes running through the lotus root ensure that we have a clear view of our future and can plan for it well.
●Gobō (Burdock root)
Gobō is the long edible root of the burdock plant. Eating this over the New Year period is believed to help us grow long slender roots into the ground keeping us stable. Tataki-gobō is gobō that has been lightly simmered and then beaten so it splits in half. It is thought that by eating this we can open ourselves to accept good fortune.
New Year Cooking Trivia
Once it was taken for granted that osechi-ryōri was homemade, but recently it has become a standard item for sale at department stores and in mail order catalogues. Recently gaining popularity are the lavish osechi-ryōri on offer from famous hotels and high-class Japanese-style restaurants costing from between ¥20~30,000 ($250~$380 AUD). Most begin accepting orders with a rush in October and often sell out by mid November. The great variety of osechi-ryōri on offer is also growing with Chinese osechi including things like shark fin and abalone, French osechi which has foie gras, and Italian osechi which you can enjoy with wine just to name a few. The prices also vary greatly, with some ranging above ¥30,000 ($380). One example is osechi-ryōri served in a Kyoto lacquer jūbako (stackable serving box similar to a bentō box) and includes red sea bream.
Iwai-bashi (chopsticks for special occasions)
The iwai-bashi used over the new year have both ends rounded off for eating from; one end is for us to eat from and the other is for God’s mouth. They are made from willow timber as it is a vigorous tree which is revered for its capacity to fend off evil spirits and the timber is difficult to snap. The length of these chopsticks is also standardised to 8 sun (approx. 24.24cm) (sun is a traditional unit of length), as 8 is considered to be a lucky number.
'Ozōni’; an essential part of Osechi-ryōri
Originally Ozōni was a mochi (steamed glutinous rice pounded into a dense, rubbery consistency) rice cake soup made with vegetables, chicken and fish. Nowadays, however, each household and region of Japan has its own characteristic version of this popular New Year’s food. Generally speaking, in western Japan it is made with a white miso soup base and round mochi balls that have not been grilled, while in eastern Japan it is made with grilled cubes of mochi in a clear, soy sauce based soup. As mentioned earlier, each and every region has its own distinctive ozōni and here are a few for you to try at home.
●Ozōni-kurumi-mochi (Ozōni with walnut mochi) (From Iwate prefecture)
The mochi (grilled cubed mochi) from this ozōni is dipped into a sauce of ground walnut, sugar and soy sauce then eaten. In addition to daikon (Japanese daikon radish), carrot and gobō (root of the edible burdock plant), this ozōni includes shellfish.
●Edofū-zōni (Tokyo style ozōni)
Tokyo’s ozōni is a simple aromatic flavour with a soup made with a konbu (dried kelp seaweed) and katsuobushi (shaven dried bonito) stock base flavoured with soy sauce and filled with grilled cubes of mochi. Some typical ingredients include komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), chicken, daikon and carrot.
●An-mochi-ni (Ozōni with sweet bean paste filled mochi) (From Kagawa prefecture)
This type of ozōni is a soup made with konbu and katsuobushi stock and white miso paste. To that an-mochi, mochi filled with anko (sweet bean paste) is added and sprinkled with powdered aonori (green laver seaweed). There are various ingredients used depending on the household, but common ones include daikon, carrot, sato-imo (taro) and green leafy vegetables like spinach. The flavour of an-mochi-ni is an essential part of the New Year for people from Kagawa.
●Kaki-zōni (oyster ozōni) (From Hiroshima prefecture)
Hiroshima is famous for kaki (oysters) and kaki-zōni is believed to be a food which gathers good luck. It is a miso soup made with konbu stock and filled with daikon, carrot and oysters.
Happy New Year!
Photography assistance: LITTLE TOKYO