Seafood is symbolic in Japanese New Year

Published on
December 23, 2009

As Japan prepares for the New Year holidays, seafood dealers are enjoying an annual boost in sales.

Shohei Kamiji of Kamiji Shoten, a processor located near the Osaka Central Wholesale market, told SeafoodSource that he is doing a brisk business in miso-marinated sablefish and Spanish mackerel, salted salmon, tarako (salted cod-eggs) and mirinboshi.

Made using small horse mackerel or other oily fish, mirinboshi is headed and gutted, butterflied, salted and marinated with mirin (sweet rice wine for cooking), sake and soy; it is then air dried. Mirinboshi are heated in the oven-toaster before eating. Japanese snow crab and king crab from Russia and Alaska are also seasonally popular for nabe (dishes cooked in an earthenware pot at the table), he said.

On New Year’s Eve, most Japanese will eat buckwheat noodles, the long noodles symbolizing a wish for long life. Called toshikoshi soba, it is often served in broth and topped with prawn tempura or a teriyaki-flavored herring, along with chopped green onion.

On the morning of New Year’s Day, stacked lacquered boxes will be opened. These contain foods that can be stored for several days and served cold, and many symbolize health, fecundity and luck. Among the traditional seafood components of the osechi ryori meal are:

Kazunoko are tiny yellow herring eggs, often imported from the United States. Like flying fish roe, they are crunchy, but the eggs are not loose; they stick together in the shape of the roe sack. They are marinated in a dashi stock, sake and soy sauce and topped with dried bonito shavings. Since each roe sack contains an average of 20,000 eggs, kazunoko is eaten in the hope of bearing many offspring.

Gomame are small sardines that have been dried and then finished in a sweet sauce of sugar, mirin, soy sauce and sake. They are sweet and crispy and are eaten head and all. Gomame can mean “50,000 ears of rice,” symbolizing a wish for a bountiful harvest.

Kamaboko is broiled fish paste whose cheerful red and white colors are said to represent the auspiciousness of the rising sun. Another osechi staple, datemaki, is a sweet omelet smeared with fish paste and rolled into logs. High-grade surimi is used for these products.

Kombumaki is kombu (kelp) rolled tightly and bound with a ribbon of gourd strip (kampyo). These are often stuffed with salmon or herring. They are cooked slowly in dashi, mirin, sugar and soy sauce. Kombu can also be pronounced as kobu and is a play on words with “yorokobu,” which means happiness.

Boiled prawns — with shell, head and antennae on — symbolize long life, because they have the stooped back and whiskers of an old man. Broiled yellowtail in teriyaki sauce is also popular, and sea bream is commonly served for celebrations, including New Year. The fish is gutted and grilled whole. Staring at the sea bream for a moment is said to be lucky.

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Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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