New Year’s Eve is perhaps the most popular night of the year to party till dawn, but New Year’s Day, in contrast, is a far quieter occasion where families spend time together and partake in New Year traditions such as visiting the shrine for hatsumode and eating osechi, traditional New Year dishes that said to bring good fortune.
A few centuries ago, it was considered taboo to use the hearth for cooking in the first three days of the new year. For this reason, New Year meals were prepared a few days in advance, often by marinating and preserving food so that they keep well.
These days, while people don’t pay much attention to the superstition anymore, osechi is still eaten for the sake of tradition and good luck. The auspicious dish, often presented in gorgeous boxes much like a luxe bento, is assorted with symbolic ingredients, each thought to signify something prosperous.
This chestnut paste is called ‘kinton’, which means golden dumpling. It is used to symbolise valuable materials, ie gold and silver. Kinton is eaten to wish for good finances in the coming year.
As odd as it sounds, shrimp, which generally have a short lifespan of only one to six years, are symbolic of longevity. Why? When they’re cooked, their backs curl up like those of the elderly. You might not particularly welcome the thought of your body ‘curling up like a shrimp’ in your old age, but at least you’ll live a long and happy life.
Photo: Dreamstime/Yasuhiro Amano
Kamaboko, or fish cakes, add a pop of colour to osechi with its red and white appearance. Red is believed to ward of bad spirits and protect people from misfortune.
Photo: Dreamstime/Raul Garcia Herrera
Directly translates to ‘making rice paddy’, tazukuri is eaten on New Year’s Day to hope for a bountiful harvest. In the olden days, sardines were used as fertiliser for rice paddies, so they are cooked in this dish with sweet soy and mirin sauce.
A type of kelp, konbu is associated with the word ‘yorokobu’ (the Japanese word for 'joy'). It's usually stewed until tender, then rolled up and fastened with kanpyo (gourd strips).
These yellow crescents are often seen wrapped with nori seaweed and rice at sushi restaurants, but at New Year they are eaten by those hoping for children or grandchildren. ‘Kazu’ means quantity whereas ‘ko’ means child. The roe has a crunchy texture and a salty bite.
Black beans are associated with good health and eaten for energy and strength. The beans are stewed in a sweet sauce and sometimes topped with gold leaf for added extravagance.
Believe it or not, these dishes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many elements that feature in most osechi boxes. Thankfully in this generation, you don’t have to spend hours slaving away in the kitchen to prepare a hundred small quantities to artfully fit into lacquered boxes. Nowadays, you only need to go on Amazon to have osechi delivered to your door.
Fancy getting a closer look at the dishes? Every department-store depachika in Tokyo will have a selection of osechi dishes and boxes to choose from, all at different price points. Alternatively, check out your local konbini for some good luck in the New Year at a much friendlier budget.