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What’s in an Osechi?

An entire arrangement of traditional Japanese foods, and yet most of us don't know where it came from or what the foods represent.

It’s January 1st and you’re sitting around the table with your family. Maybe you’re rewatching kouhaku, or maybe you’re watching the Rose Parade. In the middle of the table lies your osechi stacked in ojyu boxes and you can’t wait to dig in!

My family in the states is small (just my parents and I, and my husband now) so we usually buy some dishes and my mom would make some and put it together. But when my parents were growing up in Japan, their moms and grandmas would spend the last couple days of the years making enough to last a couple of days as most markets and restaurants were closed for the first three days. Eating osechi may not look the same as it did when my parents were growing up, but it’s still enjoyed all over the world by Japanese families.

A depiction of a man eating osechi during the Edo period.

Osechi is a staple in Japanese households on New Year’s Day and commonly the first three days of the year, known as sanganichi. It’s a chance for businesses to take a break and for people to not have to cook for a bit until the hustle and bustle of the new year begins.

A Bit of History

The roots of osechi ryori dates back to the Yayoi period (300 BC!!) but the osechi as we know today came into shape around the Edo/Meiji (1600~1900) period and became more of the boxes full of seasonal items we know today after World War II.

The Ojyu Bako

The ojyu bako, meaning stacking boxes, plays an important role in osechi. While many households have two or three stacks, traditionally the boxes can go up to five! Depending on region and culture, people have different ways to put what foods into what box, but traditionally, the festive New Year foods go into the first one, followed by things such as seafood, stewed and grilled items, and pickles. The stacked boxes also have meaning to stack your fortune.

What’s Inside?

So what’s in a traditional osechi? Let’s take a look at some traditional foods that go in and the meaning behind it.

Kamaboko (fish cake): You may be eating these year round in your udon or soba, but the distinct pink and white kamaboko play a role with their half moon shape that symbolizes sun rise, and the kouhaku color, the two festive colors in Japanese New Year.

Renkon (lotus roots): The holes in the crunchy root represent hope that you’ll have a good outlook on the upcoming year.

Kazunoko (herring roe): The many tiny eggs represent good fertility and hope for many children.

French osechi

Datemaki (sweet egg omelet): Because it looks like a scroll, the hope for knowledge and good luck on studying is behind this one. Fun fact! It’s called “date” (pronounced with a short E, not like the fruit)  because the stylish folks during the Edo period were called “date-sha” and the kimono design resembled the kasutera (castella) kamaboko (now known as datemaki or sometimes still called kasutera kamaboko in Nagasaki) eaten in Nagasaki at that time.

Tazukuri (roasted baby sardines): Sardines were used as fertilizer for farming and farms that would use it would result in a good harvest; so hopes for good harvest are in this sweet and salty fish.

Ebi (shrimp): The curved back of the shrimp represents being able to live a life long enough to get a curved back.

Chinese osechi

There are many, many more things that go into an osechi. Depending on the region, who makes it, there are so many different variations. Osechi is traditionally a made at home dish, but recently people have been opting out for ones made by department stores, supermarkets, and  sometimes even konbini (convenience store)! Japanese style isn’t the only thing popular on the market nowadays with osechi with a Chinese and French influence also gaining popularity.

Have you had osechi before? What’s your favorite dish? Whether you celebrate by cooking it from scratch with your family or you buy it, remember to eat some of each dish for good luck for a happy new year!

Article featured in this issue:
December 2021
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