Just like the rest of the world, the Japanese get very excited about the holidays and the end of one year as a new one begins. There are numerous celebrations, everything from visiting famous shrines to spending time with relatives, but one thing that is common across all ages and families is the preparation and eating of osechi. Although Japan had five recognized seasonal holidays, New Years was always by far the one that demanded the most preparation and was the most highly anticipated. Originally, the tradition of osechi was brought over to Japan from China during the Heian Period, and quickly established itself as a beloved tradition. On the surface, osechi resembles bento boxes – home-made takeout lunches that usually contain a number of different dishes – but its difference lies not only in the amount of ingredients, but also their richness and exoticness. And though there are a lot of pre-made and store-brought osechi brands available during the holiday season, in many homes they are still made by hand and put together in the traditional way for families to enjoy. In recent years, traditional osechi has been collaborating with famous characters such as Star Wars, One Piece, and Disney.
Ingredients Used for Osechi
Depending on the style, osechi boxes can contain any number of items. Generally speaking, though, they consist of three tiered layers, each with a different sort of thematic overtone, with the vegetable dishes on the bottom and the sweets and seafood on top. The boxes themselves are often decorated with illustrations and in antiquity were often lacquered and works of art unto themselves. Today these boxes may not be quite as elegant but they are still made of hard wood or bamboo.
- Daidai – the Japanese ‘bitter’ orange, this citrus fruit symbolizes rebirth and the passing on of a legacy, indicated by the kanji meaning of the word that translates to “from generation to generation”.
- Tazukuri – fish play a big role in the osechi box, and these dried sardines marinated in soy sauce are often a favorite among older people.
- Zoni – made from mochi, a kind of beaten-rice treat, this soup can be either clear or made of a miso base, depending on where you are in Japan.
- Kamaboko – another fish treat, these are little cakes are first broiled, and traditionally come in different colors; slices of red and white kamaboko are arranged in alternating patterns to emulate Japan’s flag, the rising sun.
- Kazunoko – another favorite, these are actually fish roe, or eggs, and add a pleasant texture and saltiness to other dishes, and are considered a delicacy.
- Kuro-mame – black soybeans that are meant to indicate good health.
- Datemaki – eggs also feature prominently in osechi boxes, and this sweet rolled omelette is usually complemented with a fish paste, and a meaning of the kanji relates to fashion, a call-back to the time of noble samurai clans.
- Ebi – prawns or shrimp are a favorite year round, but during New Year celebrations only the biggest and juiciest are selected for osechi boxes.
- Nishiki Tamago – basically an egg roulade, it is often separated while cooked, and the distinct white and yellow portions each have their own symbolic meaning as well (gold and silver).
While these constitute some of the more traditional osechi items, there have been numerous modern adaptations to the practice, which has led to some more unconventional ingredients becoming popular. In particular, there has been a huge focus on introducing more interesting (and expensive) deep sea ingredients. Some of these include, among others, water snails, full-sized lobsters, yinmedai (a large-eyed fish common off the Japanese coast), and giant deep sea isopods that look like creepy alien bugs. In fact, the Japanese term for them – ogusokumushi – actually translates to “giant armored bug”, which acknowledges the fact that these bizarre creatures are actually covered in a chitinous shell that makes them one of the crunchier delicacies on our list.
For those One Piece fans out there, there is an osechi for you. Before December 22, 2016 be sure to reserve your One Piece themed osechi! All of the One Piece characters are wearing traditional Japanese clothes. Along with the osechi, there is special goods included on the set. Some of the awesome goods are plates, a tote bag, and chopsticks. This special osechi set is a great way to welcome in the new year.
There are many other character collaboration osechi packages. Among these, one interesting take was a Star Wars osechi. This clever set features Light and Dark Side tiers, with things like a milk mousse R2-D2 on top of kinton, or sweet mashed potatoes, as well as a Darth Vader made of kuromame black soybeans. You might also find some Stormtroopers hidden among sea bream and abalone, and a tiny C-3PO perched atop a sea of octopus and shellfish, items traditionally meant to encourage a bountiful harvest in the future. The AKB48 osechi package consists of New Year cuisine even comes with a music video of the group, and 48 selected winners also have a chance to win a piece of cloth from one of the member’s costumes – signed, of course.
Our favorite unique take on this ancient tradition probably has to be the desert osechi, though. With a number of different flavored cakes, including a rolled matcha sweet roll stuffed with cream and a strawberry mousse, it’s enough to make anyone’s mouth water. And besides, what better way to bring in the New Year than with a touch of sweetness?