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Osechi Ryori Expresses People’s Wishes for the New Year

    January 1 marks the beginning of the new year in many cultures. People in Japan also hold many different ceremonies on this day to wish for happiness in the year to come. These wishes are also expressed in the form of food.
    Many households in Japan eat a meal called Osechi Ryori, or Osechi, at the start of the year. Osechi Ryori is a colorful selection of food served in a neat arrangement inside containers called “Jubako.” Jubako are square-shaped boxes that can be stacked on top of each other in a tower with two, three, four, or even five stories. This stacked tower is said to represent multiple layers of happiness for the future.

On the left, an empty Jubako before being filled with Osechi Ryori. On the right, Jubako with Osechi Ryori arranged inside them

    The Jubako with Osechi Ryori in them feature many different types of food to mark this joyous occasion, and each type is said to have its own significance.
    People decorate their dining tables for the new year by laying out a festive meal with auspicious ingredients.
    If you understand the significance of each type of food, you will be able to enjoy this meal even more.

The Three Basic Elements: Kuromame, Kazunoko, and Gomame or Tataki-Gobo

    Each household prepares Osechi Ryori in different ways according to their preferences, but this section will introduce the most common examples.
    Black soybeans (Kuromame), herring eggs (Kazunoko), and dried anchovies (Gomame) or pounded burdock (Tataki-Gobo) serve as the three basic and essential types of food in Osechi Ryori.
    Dried anchovies are used in the Kanto region (including Tokyo), and pounded burdock is used in the Kansai region (including Osaka and Kyoto).
    Kuromame refers to black soybeans stewed with sweet flavorings. The Japanese word “Mame” means “bean,” but when pronounced slightly differently, “Mame” can also mean to work hard or be healthy. For this reason, this food represents long life and good health. In addition, black is the color used in Japan to avoid bad or evil things.
    Kazunoko is prepared by salting herring eggs, taking away the salt, and then adding soy sauce and other seasonings.
    There is a large number of eggs in each piece, signifying the hope that people will have many children and the hope for their descendants to prosper.

Kuromame represent people’s wishes to live long and be healthy

Kazunoko represents people’s wishes for their descendants to prosper

    Gomame refers to young Japanese anchovies that are dried and then boiled together with sugar, soy sauce, sweet sake, and other seasonings to make them sweet, yet spicy. Fishermen in Japan once caught a large number of Japanese anchovies and used the excess fish to fertilize the soil for rice crops. This brought a good harvest of rice, and so the anchovies were seen as a high-quality fertilizer. For this reason, they are included in Osechi Ryori to express the wish for Gokoku Hojo (huge harvests for all grains). Gomame also includes the word “Mame” inside it just like Kuromame, so this food also represents hopes for long life and good health.
    Tataki-Gobo is used for Osechi Ryori in the Kansai region. It is prepared by boiling burdock (a root vegetable), and then pounding it with a knife or a similar instrument to soften its fibers. Burdock has strong roots that go deep into the ground, and so this food represents long life, or alternatively a strong family business.

Gomame represents people’s wishes for Gokoku Hojo (huge harvests for all grains)

Tataki-Gobo represents people’s wishes for stable households and a steady family business

The Wide Variety of Food Placed Around These Three Basic Elements

    There are many other types of food arranged like decorations beside these three basic elements. This section will introduce a few examples.
    The yellow spiral-shaped food in the image below is a sweet egg dish called Datemaki. It is made by mixing chicken eggs with a paste made from fish or shrimp, baking the mixture to make it soft, and then rolling it all up. It has a similar shape to Japanese Makimono (traditional documents featuring writing or pictures on a long, rolled-up sheet of paper in a scroll), and so it represents the wish to make progress in learning and enrich their knowledge.
    The pink and white semicircular-shaped food in the image below is called Kamaboko. This is prepared by making a paste from cod, shark, and other white-meat fish, adding salt, sugar, egg whites, and other seasonings, and then heating the mixture by steaming or with other cooking methods. Its shape is said to resemble the first sunrise of the new year. The color red (or pink) protects against evil, and the color white represents purity. In Japan, the combination of red and white is understood as a sign of good luck.

Datemaki represents people’s wishes to make progress in learning and enrich their knowledge

Kamaboko signifies purity and protection against bad things

Kuri Kinton represents people’s wishes for good business and luck with money

    “Kuri Kinton” is the name of a sweet dish made by boiling down water and sugar, then adding chestnuts and stewing the mixture again. The “Kuri” in “Kuri Kinton” is the Japanese word for chestnut, and the “Kin” in “Kinton” means gold. This food resembles gold coins or chunks of gold, and is said to bring good fortune, such as through prosperous business or good luck in monetary matters.

Kohaku-Namasu represents people’s wishes for tranquility and peace

    Prepared by mixing finely cut daikon radish, carrot, and vinegar, “Kohaku-Namasu” looks like the decorative cords called “Mizuhiki” used in Japan for presents given at celebrations, and therefore this food came to be included in the festive New Year’s meal. It represents wishes for tranquility and peace. This food has a sour but refreshing taste, and places emphasis on its use of color.

Kobumaki is made with Kobu, signifying happiness

    “Kobumaki” is made by making a roll out of Kobu (seaweed) wrapped around herring or other fish. This roll is tied up with Kanpyo, dried strips of bottle gourd. “Kobu” sounds the same as the last part of “Yorokobu,” the Japanese word for feeling happy, and so this food represents joy. Just like Datemaki, this roll also looks like Makimono, and so it additionally expresses wishes to make progress in learning and to enrich their knowledge.

Grilled shrimp represent people’s wishes for longevity

    Shrimp have curved bodies that resemble elderly people with bent-over postures, and so they represent a life that stretches over many years. In this way, “grilled shrimp” express the wish to live for a long time.

Osechi Ryori is Easily Available

    Each element of Osechi Ryori is made with care and effort, and together these foods represent a wide range of wishes for the new year. Many of the dishes are well-cooked or prepared with strong flavors so that they keep for a long time. As such, Osechi is known as a meal that lets people rest on the New Year’s holiday without needing to cook.
    However, it is very difficult for people at the end of the year to prepare several days’ worth of food to eat in the new year.
    For this reason, many of the elements included in Osechi Ryori are sold ready-cooked in Japan. This makes it easy, because all you have to do is buy the different types of food and arrange them in Jubako.
    Department stores and online shopping websites also sell Osechi Ryori already packed in Jubako, making it easy to enjoy this traditional Japanese meal.

Deluxe Osechi Ryori sold in department stores and other shops

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