Superstition pervades Japan’s New Year osechi dishes

Published on
December 30, 2014

The traditional foods of the New Year in Japan contain much symbolism, thought to bring luck. For example, in toshikoshi soba, a buckwheat noodle soup eaten on New Year’s Eve, the long noodles symbolize a wish for long life. It is usually served 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, tiny yellow herring eggs, usually imported from the United States, are like flying fish roe,  in that they are crunchy, but the eggs are not loose; they stick together in the shape of the roe sack. They are marinated in dashi stock, sake and soy sauce and topped with dried bonito shavings. Since each roe sack contains about 20,000 eggs, kazunoko symbolizes having many children.

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 with the heads on. The word “gomame” can mean “50,000 ears of rice,” symbolizing a bountiful harvest.

Kamaboko is broiled fish paste. Itscheerful 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 kampyo (gourd strip). 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 to make a play on the word “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.

Sea bream (tai), gutted and grilled whole, is commonly served for celebrations. A centerpiece of the New Year, it is displayed separately from the osechi boxes. The name can be included in the phrase “omedetai,” which can mean either “I want to congratulate you,” or “congratulatory sea-bream.”

In recent years, as the population has become older and as the younger generation of women enters the workforce, pre-made osechi boxes have become more common. While all items were formerly made at home, now women may only make a few side dishes to compliment a purchased set.

Such sets were in years past available on the basement floor of department stores or from expensive traditional restaurants and some department stores such as Seibu, start taking advance orders as early as September. However less extravagant sets can now be readily bought at convenience stores such as 7-11 and on Internet shopping portals such as Rakuten with little or no lead time. Prices range from around JPY 10,000 to JPY 30,000 (USD 82-249; EUR 68-204) for a set of three stacking boxes depending on the ingredients. Many large prawns tend to increase the price. Some go so far as to include lobster tail or sliced abalone.

Today, osechi may include foreign dishes, and Westernized osechi and Chinese-style osechi are available, though not as popular as the traditional sets. Western-style often includes roast beef, while Chinese may include sweet and sour pork and shrimp in chili sauce.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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