Ask most any Japanese and they will tell you New Year’s means two things: Temple visits and osechi. The visit (one should suffice) is to pray for an upcoming good year. The osechi, however, is more about today, as it is what you will be eating for most if not all of January 1st. Osechi cuisine, traditionally served in decorative bento-esque boxes, is a treasure trove of special dishes reserved for this first day of the year. There will be no need for New Years’ asceticism, as the foods are a pleasure to behold and uniformly delicious.
There are more than a dozen mainstream osechi foods, each having their own symbolism. Kamaboko is broiled fish cake, usually accented red and white to symbolize the Japanese flag, thus giving a celebratory flair. Kuromame are black soy beans, and are associated with good health. Skewered prawns, cooked in a soy based sauce, symbolize long life. Nishikitamago is a sweet egg concoction having the yolk and white separated into two layers. This represents silver and gold, thus suggesting wealth and good fortune. Tai, a type of sea bream fish, is dried and elegantly presented as a focal point of the spread. This fish, especially in this presentation, symbolizes an auspicious event, of which many are hoped for the coming year.
While some elements of osechi food may be found at restaurants, as a general rule it is eaten at home and only on the first day of the year. The time-consuming tradition of making it all from scratch has, for some families, fallen victim to modern day busyness. Food service companies have filled this void, with osechi sets of varying expense available for pre-order from more than a month before the holiday.
When it comes to New Year’s day in Japan, it’s time to sit down with the family and enjoy the various types of osechi cuisine. With everything having already been prepared the night before, you have time to give pause, consider the past year, the coming year, and perhaps most importantly, appreciate what you have.