OSECHI RYORI: The Art of New Years Cuisine

(from Tradepia International)

by Blake More

Without question, New Years remains the most celebrated time of the Japanese year. The Japanese word for the first three days of new year¾ "o-shogatsu"¾ literally means "just right" or "standard", thus all activities during the week just preceding and those making up the New Year are associated with tremendous symbolism regarding the year ahead. Out standing debts are paid, unfinished business transacted, houses are thoroughly cleaned, and generally all other affairs are brought into some recognizable order, thus clearing the way for prosperity and happiness in the coming year.

But perhaps, more expressive than any of these purification rites are the special New Years foods that are prepared at this time, as these foods set the tone for the year ahead. Called "osechi ryori," these traditional foods are prepared in bountiful quantities and served during the first three days of January in order to nourish, both literally and figuratively, the health and good wishes of the family and to impart a feeling of thankfulness and joy for the arrival of the New Year. Made up of an assortment of plain and nutritious¾ but far from luxurious¾ foods that only come together in this combination once a year, osechi ryori can be viewed as the national cuisine of New Years, kind of like turkey and cranberries are to America's Thanksgiving.

Osechi has its earliest origins in a year end ceremony that was introduced to the Imperial Court from China during the Nara period (710-793). As part of the festivities, many small dishes were offered to the various deities, and, as food for gods rather than revellers, they were not intended to be eaten during the ceremony. However, resourceful guests, mindful of good food, began bringing these offerings home in small boxes so they could satisfy their stomachs without unsettling the gods. Then, during the Heian period (794-1185), these foods were given the name "sechie" and eventually, the custom spread to commoners who actually began offering their food in lacquer boxes so, afterwards when the gods were full, they could take the food home and fill themselves. And thus was born the custom of osechi ryori.

As its original significance became diluted by time, osechi took on a life and purpose uniquely its own¾one that still remains in varying degrees today. Mainly, this makeover can be viewed in the context of the "three day preservation rule"¾dishes that tasted good even when cold and remained edible during the first three days of the New Year. This stipulation of longevity was instituted for a number of reasons, foremost of which was the fact that since all businesses and shops were closed during these days, nobody could go out to buy food. And as friends and relatives generally dropped in on each other during this time, plenty of food had to be prepared and ready to serve these guests¾whenever they arrived. Besides, such early preparation eliminated the need for cooking, thus liberating busy housewives from their customary duties and allowing them to relax over the New Year and visit their guests without having to run back and forth into the kitchen all the time.

To ensure that they could actually make it through three days, osechi dishes were originally¾and incidentally, still are¾prepared with lots of sugar, vinegar, and salt, since all help to prevent bacteria from forming and give food a longer shelf life. However, the heavy sweetness of osechi dishes is also said to be a hold over from the time when sugar was a valued commodity reserved for special occasions. Of course, this was all long before the advent of refrigeration and the proliferation of cake shops.

Osechi dishes are often stored and served together in special multi-tiered lacquer boxes known as "jubako". There are generally four tiers with three, five, or seven

kinds of foods placed in each box in such a way that their color, smells and tastes compliment one another. Age old customs prescribe that each tier be placed in a specific order and that only specific combinations of foods be placed within each tier. "The foods are to be eaten from the top tier down, from appetizers to main delicacies, to boiled vegetables, to vinegared-pickled vegetables, and now days an optional 5th tier can include sushi, although of course in the old days sushi was never included because raw fish couldn't keep for 3 days." explains Kanami Egami, of Egami Cooking School in Tokyo.

By now, youνre probably wondering just what exactly goes into all these boxes any way. Well, in a nut shell, how about an tasty sampling of folklore and symbology specifically chosen to set a table of health, prosperity, and good fortune far into the coming year.

For example, take, "kasunoko", a salted herring roe generally served with soy sauce and dried bonito shavings. Translating as "many children", because each herring ovary contains as many as 100,000 eggs, kazunoko is eaten at New Years in hopes that, like the herring, the couple will bare many offspring. But, as kazunoko has become so expensive in recent years due to marginal catches, it has recently been nicknamed "the diamond of the sea"¾although none are willing to say whether there is a correlation between the high price of kasunoko and the decreasing birth rate in Japan.

Then there is "gomame"¾a sweet and crispy dish made from small dried sardines¾whose Chinese characters mean "fifty thousand years of rice" and thus giving it a special place among the prayers for a bountiful harvest. "Kamaboko," a broiled fish paste whose "cheerful" red and white colors are said to represent the auspiciousness of the rising sun, is without question a mainstay on any osechi menu. Similarly, a mixture of sweet chestnuts and mashed sweet potato boiled in a sweetened sauce called "kurikinton" is served due to its bright gold color which signifies richness and wealth in the coming year. Another osechi staple, "datemaki"---a sweet omelet smeared with fish paste and then rolled into sliceable logs¾is said to impart the feeling of ancient study scrolls and thus bridge the attitudes of old and new as they subtly capture the essence of a growing culture.

Due to a homophone of "mame" which means "to be in good health", another dish, "kuromame"¾stewed black soy beans, boiled in syrup¾ is eaten in order to ensure that all family members will be healthy and robust in the year ahead. And as the beans themselves must be "robust" in stature as well, kuromame is often credited as the most challenging of the osechi dishes. Explains Egami, ""Kuromame is difficult and time consuming dish for students to prepare because each bean must be perfect¾plump and unbroken."

Of course, grilled fish dishes, known as "yakizakana," are always included in the New Years feast, particularly those made with auspicious ones, such as "ebi" (shrimp), "tai" (sea bream), "buri" (yellowtail), and "sake" (salmon). For instance, besides its exalted position as a luxury food worldwide, shrimp is considered an important New Years food in Japan because of its double symbology for long life¾its rounded spine represents the stooped back of an old person and one of the two Chinese characters that combine to spell "ebi" means "old." Another significant New Years fish, sea bream¾ called a greedy, corpse-eating fish in some cultures¾lacks shrimp's global stature but holds an honored position at the Japanese table and folklore alike. One only needs to examine the proverb "kussate mo tai"¾which literally translates to "even if it spoils, sea bream is still sea bream"¾that is used to express the belief that something of great value, however much it wears, continues to remain a thing of excellence. Furthermore, sea bream shows up in ancient mythology as well, specifically under the right arm of Ebisu, one of the seven deities of good fortune who is deemed responsible for wealth and longevity.

And like a Christmas without leaded egg nog, an osechi ryori feast wouldn't be complete without a celebratory toast of "o-toso", a rice wine spiked with ten medicinal herbs. According to traditional belief, which, incidentally, was also passed over from the Chinese, if one drinks o-toso, there will be no sickness within the limit of one mile for it is believed that the drink has th power to destroy evil spirits, invigorate vitality, and prolong life.

Yet, despite the deeper significance of the foods that make up osechi ryori cuisine, people are always looking for ways to inject new life into this timeworn practice. Women's magazines¾like the glossy "Kateigaho" and the more mainstream "Hanako", as well as a myriad of special osechi supplements¾devote entire issues every year to new osechi ideas. "Even though osechi is a basic food that always looks the same, I try to find variations of typical dishes. For example, this year I'm going to try out a pineapple kinton recipe that I found in one of the magazines," says Chizuko Yamazaki, chef and owner of two Western Tokyo restaurants.

The long-standing Egami Cooking School in Tokyo is also doing its part to keep osechi ryori alive by offering a four week course which covers all the 4-tier dishes, plus two half-day classes for basic or advanced osechi. Comments Egami, "With so many women working, homemade osechi may be a thing of the past, but I really believe that at least one or two dishes should still be prepared at home. Although cooking osechi is time consuming, just being able to relax over the New Year more than compensates for the hectic rush at the year-end."

And hectic rush it is. Cooking osechi is a process that, according to some, starts as early as December 25th and continues all the way until December's final days. But, hopefully, by "omisoka", the last day of the New Year, all osechi foods will be safely tucked away in their respective boxes, so that, when the temple bells all across Japan release their 108 booms, all the hard work can become a feast for everyone to enjoy. In the words of one dedicated epicurean, "The most exciting thing about New Years is opening the osechi boxes and seeing all of the beautiful colors and shapes."

Technically, when setting the table for osechi, each person must have a separate plate which corresponds to each tier of the box. When taking food from the tiers, a person is expected to take one of each kind of food, even if he or she hates it. And as eating together as a family is said to strengthen ties and insure closeness and interdependence, particularly during the new year, all family members are expected to share in the osechi feast.

Yet, like the game boys and video arcades that have replaced kiteflying as typical New Years activities for children, the shifting traditions of New Years also reflect the changing face of modern Japan. One glaring example of this is in the preparation and serving of osechi ryori, particularly in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where people are switching from homemade to ready-made osechi. Possibly, it is the dedicated career women who understand the reasons for this better than anyone.

Old enough to appreciate the true taste of osechi yet unable to afford three days pouring over her mother's proven recipes, Mutsuko Hayakawa, a successful Tokyo opthomologist and mother of one, is a perfect example of a woman caught between past and present. "A colleague of mine always buys her osechi, but I grew up with osechi made from scratch every year. So, although I am very busy, I'm not in the New Years frame of mind unless I make osechi myself. Unfortunately, I don't really have the time." Yamazuki faces a similar dilemma, "To people who buy osechi, it is just something for Jan 1st, a store-bought taste that only reminds of a familiar feeling from childhood. But for me, osechi is an important ritual that starts in the kitchen on Dec 29th. Even so, I can understand why people buy it, because there simply isn't enough time to make everything we want these days."

Even cookbooks have joined the tide towards buying rather than making osechi. In TYPICAL JAPANESE COOKING, by Tomi Egami, the kamaboko recipe lists one ingredient: 1 large kamaboko fish cake. The cooking instructions are equally simple: Remove from the paper or cardboard, and cut in 1/3 inch slices.

Thus, it should come as little surprise that just about every major department store and supermarket in Japan now stocks osechi ryori cuisine in December. Most stores offer osechi either as individual dishes or as sets, and many pass out elaborate catalogs to make the selection as easy as pulling out your wallet, which better be stuffed if you plan on ordering osechi as a set.

In Isetan's osechi ryori catalog, the set boxes come in circles, hexagons, and rectangles in additional to the standard square. On average, the smallest box is a scant 13cm x 13cm, while the biggest measures a substantial 34 square centimeter. But don't be fooled, as size has little to do with price. Instead, price is determined by contents and the reputation of the wholesaler or restaurant which put it together. For example, a relatively unknown shop may whip up three 20 square centimeter boxes for €22,000, whereas Kicho, a famous restaurant in Kyoto offers three circles of the same size for a heafty €196,000. The rest of the sets, ranging anywhere from one to four tiers cost between €30,000 to €50,000 on average and most Isetan customers buy their ready-made osechi in this price range.

And besides offering "tastes, ingredients, and cooking styles from Japan's many diverse regions," the Isetan osechi catalog also provides customers with a chance to go international in their osechi choices. While still avoiding the sacrilege of hotdogs and hamburgers, some of the store's wholesalers have included fried chicken, roast beef, and sliced ham alongside the traditional fare. Of course, for more the discriminating carnivore, there's also fois gras, pate, and caviar. A "French" style set packs in prosciutto and melon, quiche (for the women), deviled eggs, and candied figs among other non-Japanese offerings; the sampling of noodles, breaded shrimp, barbecue ribs, and sweet and sour pork makes the "Chinese" osechi combination resemble the family course at the corner sechwan restaurant rather than something the family can really ring in the New Year with.

Although lacking the elan of Isetan and other department stores, supermarkets are similarly filling the demand for easy osechi. Kinokuniya, a Tokyo-based supermarket chain, offers customers a choice of four sets. "Two are made by us and the other two are provided by well known Japanese chefs. All are traditional, although one of our sets contains a few of our best selling deli items as well," says Miyasaka Marly, a customer relations representative at Kinokuniya. She says that sales have been increasing steadily since the mid-eighties. Yet, she also stresses that she has noticed more people who "don't even bother to celebrate New Years with osechi."

Even 7-ll has joined the osechi action by offering a set that adds double meaning to the idea of "convenience." Fetching a reasonable €15,000, their box includes smoked salmon or smoked duck in addition to the traditional favorites. Says merchandiser Seigo Naito, "We sold approximately 10,200 sets last year, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. It is mainly housewives who buy from us because it saves them the trouble of cooking at home, and it is an easier way to enjoy a traditional Japanese New Years celebration." He says he sees the popularity of store bought osechi increasing, but he believes the recession will hold this year's sales to the '92 level.

At a majority of these stores, set reservations are taken from mid-November to late-December with pick up or deliveries on the 30th or 31st, although the last minute shoppers can still find some good discounts on standard boxes until doors lock on December 31st. And thanks to Isetan, even those far from Japan been can still eat homegrown osechi, as the store ships pre-frozen, air-tight containers to their several hundred overseas customers each year.

Yet, due to the high cost of sets, Isetan's Kyoko Kawarabayashi admits, that like other department stores, most of their osechi sales¾ which in 1992 added up to 5 percent of December food sales¾come from the purchase of individual dishes. "People such as party hostesses who don't want to cook large amounts of food themselves and women who have time to make some dishes but don't want to hassle with the more difficult ones are usually our most frequent customers." She says that gomame (€700 per 150g) and kamaboko (anything from €800 to a few thousand yen per roll) are Isetan's hottest sellers, while adding that datemaki (anything from €1,000 per roll on up), kurikinton (€800 per 150g) ), and kazunoko (€1,000 per 200grams) are close seconds.

So, at these prices, it's easy to understand why so many families have begun abbreviating their osechi observances. Unlike in the old days when osechi was served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner three days in a row, times for eating osechi now vary from family to family and from day to day. Most most admit that, whether homemade or store bought and regardless of how much remains after the first day, they generally avoid osechi on January 2nd, stressing that osechi loses its appeal once the annual dose of nostalgia has been administered. "In my family, I'm the only one who is able to eat osechi after the first day¾ my children and my husband always get tired of it and ask for curried rice or something equally non-traditional. I think they were influenced by a foreign friend who came over one year and he said that he couldn't understand why a country that made such great food would serve such horrible food at New Years," says Yamazaki. Even Hayakawa who sang the praises of osechi by exclaiming "It isn't New Years until I have eaten osechi," footnoted her applause with a quiet, "That is, as long as it isn't for three days."

Still, whether it lasts for three days, breakfast, or only an hour, osechi ryori cuisine is one tradition that still seems to have a hold on the national consciousness. Even now, in the midst of neon New Year in 1994 Japan, one need only look past the concrete apartments and into their soft, cozy interiors to find families, in their finest suits and most elaborate kimonos gathered around the table, munching osechi and guzzling o-toso. Of course, the order of consumption, like the authenticity of the dishes, depends entirely upon the family.


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