What is Osechi Ryori, the Food the Japanese Eat at New Year’s?
It is a tradition in Japan to eat "osechi ryori" at the beginning of the year. Each dish that has been handed down over centuries has a special meaning. This article will introduce this special feast.
What is Osechi Ryori?
"Osechi" means a juncture in the year. "Osechi ryori" used to refer to seasonal food that was prepared for deities in a ceremony meant to celebrate the change in seasons. However, it now refers to food prepared for the New Year.
The food is generally served in a nest of lacquered boxes, and each colorful item represents wishes for the New Year. The flavors tend to be strong, so the food keeps longer. It is also customary to enjoy a celebratory sake called "otoso" and a soup with mochi called "ozoni" together with osechi during the New Year.
Next let's take a look at some individual dishes.
First up is "kazunoko", which is Pacific herring roe marinated in salt. Pacific herring is called "nishin" in Japanese, which can also refer to “two parents”. As such, kazunoko represents a wish for many children (eggs) to be born from two parents or "the treasure that is children and perpetuation of one's descendants". The crunchy and plump texture, as well as the salty flavor, goes perfectly with alcoholic beverages like sake.
Next is "kuromame", a dish of sweet, skin-on simmered black soybeans. Beans are called "mame" in Japanese, and these beans are meant to represent "mame ni hataraku", which means to be healthy and strong, and to work hard. This is a dish befitting the Japanese, who are known for their diligence.
"Tazukuri", otherwise known as "gomame", is made of dried young Japanese anchovies. The fish are roasted, and then simmered with sugar, mirin, and soy sauce. As in the case of the kuromame beans introduced earlier, gomame represents the desire to be able to live in a "mame" manner (healthy and working hard). The name "tazukuri", which literally means “to make fields”, comes from the fact that small fish were used as fertilizer for rice fields in the past. As such, it represents a wish for an abundant crop. Tazukuri is popular for its sweet and savory flavor, and is packed with nutrients like calcium.
Kuri-kinton has a bright yellow color that is festive to look at. It is made by adding sugar to boiled and strained sweet potatoes, along with cooked chestnuts. It represents golden treasures and a desire for a bountiful year. Kuri (chestnuts) have been cherished since ancient times as an item that is fortuitous for battle and other matches, so the dish also represents a desire for victory in the New Year.
Salt Grilled Sea Bream
Sea bream is considered a festive dish in Japan. It is a luxurious fish, and its name, "tai", is a part of the expression, "omedetai", which means happy or auspicious. Sea bream is grilled in salt for the New Year, but left untouched for the first three days of the year. It is referred to as "nirami-dai" (staring sea bream), and is eaten for the first time on January 4th. It is considered to be an offering to the deities, and once the first three days of the new year have passed, people can enjoy it with thanks.
Osechi ryori is available at some ryokan (Japanese inns) during the New Year period, and can also be purchased at supermarkets and department stores. If you are traveling in Japan at the turn of the year, be sure to give it a try!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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