Osechi Ryōri is a collection of traditional dishes enjoyed by Japanese families during New Year's. It consists of 2-3 layers of small dishes in lacquer boxes, with each dish having symbolic meanings around good fortune for the coming year. Traditionally, Osechi Ryōri is cooked from scratch and eaten over a three-day period, from January 1 to 3.
Many families have forgone cooking Osechi Ryōri from scratch and opt to order online, from the local department store, or even one of Japan’s popular convenience stores – Family Mart, Lawson, and 7-Eleven. Pre-made Osechi Ryōri can be expensive - around 10,000 - 60,000 yen ($68 - 412 USD) - depending on the number of boxes and complexity of the dishes.
To be honest, many children don’t enjoy Osechi Ryōri – Our guess is because it’s full of healthy foods (yuck!) and a range of sweet, savory, and even bitter flavors, but we implore you to give it a try when celebrating New Year’s in Japan to have an authentic culinary experience and to attract good luck for the new year.
Here are some of the most popular dishes in Osechi Ryōri:
It may look like fruit slices, but Kazunoko is actually comprised of tiny herring roe. Image via Adobe.
Kazunoko: Salted herring roe. This dish has a bright yellow color and a lightly crunchy texture. This dish is said to bless couples who are planning for a family with many children in the new year (“Kazu” means “number” and “ko” means “child”).
Kuromame: Boiled black beans sweetened with mizuame syrup. Mame (豆 “beans”) is a homophone for mame 忠実 (“healthy”), and it symbolizes a wish for good health for you and your family.
Tazukuri: Tiny dried sardines cooked in soy sauce. The name means “rice paddy maker,” referring to the old practice of using sardines to fertilize rice fields. One of the more contentious dishes in Osechi Ryōri for its bitter flavor, you’ll find that this dish is unpopular with kids, but you can’t argue with the protein content.
Namasu, pickled strips of daikon and radish in Japan's lucky colors, is the perfect way to usher in the new year.
Namasu: Kōhaku namasu is pickled carrot and daikon salad flavored with sweetened vinegar. Kōhaku means “red and white,” Japan’s national colors (Not to mention the name of the popular Japanese New Year’s music show Kōhaku Uta Gassen).
Tai: You know taiyaki, the fish-shaped, bean jam-filled Japanese pastry? This is the fish it’s based on! Tai is red sea bream, and medetai refers to a happy and auspicious event worthy of celebration. Sea bream is the perfect dish to ensure you have a wonderful year ahead.
If you forgot to pre-order your Osechi Ryori, you may be able to try a miniature version for breakfast at a Japanese hotel.
Datemaki: Datemaki is a sweetened rolled omelette. Date refers to the samurai clan that was founded in the Kamakura clan, headed by Date Yasamune. Known for its chivalry and lavish dress, the word “date” is synonymous with style and class.
Kuri kinton: Mashed sweet potatoes with sweetened chestnuts… that sentence alone made our stomach rumble! This soft dessert is easy to eat and rich with vitamin A and C.
Konbumaki: Rolled kelp cooked in a savory sauce and tied together with dried gourd strips. The word konbu (kelp) sounds a little like yorokobu (“joy"), making this dish ideal for a happy year ahead.
Chikuzenni: This is a hearty dish comprised of chicken, shiitake mushrooms, taro, konjac root, lotus root, burdock root, carrots, and bamboo cooked in soy sauce, sake, mirin, and mushroom broth. The soft taro can get a bit tricky to keep in tact!
Otoso and Iwaibashi
It wouldn't be New Year's without saké. Otoso is a spiced saké that is served in three cups and shared among family members for good health. It's made of medicinal ingredients like Japanese pepper, cinnamon, dried ginger, rhubarb, and Chinese bellflower. While in other contexts it would be polite to pour a drink for the most senior member at the dining table, Otoso is the one time where the youngest family member drinks first, due to the belief that older family members can absorb vitality from younger people. While this tradition has fallen out of fashion in other parts of Japan, it is a must-have in the Kansai region, and we're including it on this list as proud residents of Osaka.
Iwaibashi, meaning "celebratory chopsticks," with pointed ends on either side. While you are meant to dine with one side of the chopsticks, the other side is symbolically reserved for Shinto kami. Wash these festive chopsticks daily and eat with them until January 7. You can opt to burn them along with your other New Year's decorations at a Shinto shrine on January 15 at an event known as Dondo-yaki, ensuring even better luck for the new year.
Ready to start the new year off with satisfying Japanese ramen, udon, and yakisoba? Check out Nakama Noodles today!
Japanese New Year's SoupsWhile these soups do not quite fit in a lacquer box, they often accompany Osechi Ryōri:
Ozoni: Ozoni is a soup made with chicken, vegetables, and toasted mochi (glutinous rice cake).
In the Kanto region of Japan, including Tokyo, Ozoni is traditionally made with chicken, kamaboko fish cakes, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, Japanese mustard greens, and yuzu peel with a clear bonito-based broth.
In Kansai (Including Osaka, where we’re from!), this soup is made with taro, daikon radish, carrot, and bonito flakes with a kelp-based white miso broth.
Take a quick ride on the shinkansen on your next trip in Japan to see what other differences you can spot in Japanese cuisine!
You'll find the soup on the right in Osaka and the soup on the left in Tokyo. Image via Adobe.
Zenzai: Zenzai is a sweet adzuki bean soup made with toasted mochi. To spruce it up even further, you can add shiratama dango (ball-shaped mochi dumplings), and chestnuts. It’s believed that this dish originated in the city of Izumo in Shimane prefecture as an offering to kami at Shinto shrines. Zenzai can be enjoyed both hot and cold and you can readily find canned red bean soup and mochi at your local Japanese supermarket. If you’re not up for making it yourself, we recommend trying it at a local Japanese café, or as a last resort, from a vending machine! This dish can be enjoyed all year round, but if you have been saving your kagami mochi, you may want to wait until January 11, kigami biraki, when you break the giant mochi decoration that’s been sitting in your home and put it to good use in a delicious dessert soup.
A bowl of homemade Zenzai. Just look at those grill marks! Image via Adobe.
Perhaps the easiest way to celebrate Japanese New Year when living abroad is to fill a bowl full of mikan (mandarin oranges) and set it on your dining room table. Daidai is a variety of Asian bitter orange that is known to turn back to green in the spring if not picked in the winter. The word daidai means "several generations," making this fruit a symbolic item for longevity. While the Citrus daidai is far too bitter to eat, families in Japan have substituted sweeter mandarin oranges for the citrus fruit.
Which of these dishes are you keen to try? What are you chowing down on this New Year? Let us know in the comments!