My family has never been particularly observant of superstitions, but there’s one tradition nobody misses out on: our New Year’s meal, whose key dishes are a variety of osechi.
Osechi are traditional Japanese New Year foods that symbolize blessings such as good health, prosperity, strength in relationships, and many other values. Growing up, I was taught that we must eat an odd number of everything (more than one, especially of the things that stare back at me) to make sure these blessings carry over into the new year. Those Otera family members who have missed out on their osechi all tell cautionary tales of how the year they decided to travel and miss out on the New Year’s feast was the worst year of their lives—thus, this tradition has taken on importance not only for the sake of passing down family recipes, but also due to a smidge of fear (which really gives FOMO, the “fear of missing out,” a whole new meaning).
For the past three years, I’ve gone up to my grandparents’ house to help my grandfather—"Granpa”—prepare the pillars of our feast. Through this experience, I’ve come to appreciate some dishes for the prep experience even though they aren’t my favorite to eat. Here are the Otera Osechi Top 8, ranked by how satisfying the prep experience is.
8. Tazukuri: “Little Fishies”
Candied sardines made with dried sardines toasted in sake (rice wine), shoyu (soy sauce), mirin (sweet rice wine), and sugar. The little fish were used as fertilizer in ancient Japan and came to represent prosperity through a great harvest.
This is the osechi I mentioned that stares back at you—though I’ve gotten better about eating them, the preparation of this dish always has been the most unpleasant because they make the entire house smell fishy, even with all the windows and doors open. Preparing them is really easy, but hoo boy, no other osechi calls for a shower and change of clothes quite like this one.
7. Kobumaki: rolled kelp
Dried konbu rolls simmered until tender in water, shoyu, sake, mirin, and sugar. Part of the dish’s name, kobu, is found in the Japanese word for “joyful”: yorokobu.
These just get simmered so they’re not very fun to prepare (still yummy though). Granpa advises to simmer gently and make sure they’re always covered with water—that water gets saved to be part of the dashi that we make our nishime with, which I’ll get to later in the list. Not exactly a ~star~ but definitely a team player!
6. Inarizushi: “footballs”
Fried, sweetened tofu wrappers filled with rice. Our family fills them with mazegohan, a mixed rice that contains many bright and pretty add-ins like egg ribbons, green beans, red pickled ginger, and more. Granpa made sure to remind me that Granma made the best mazegohan :’)
While I do love eating these, there’s a certain anxiety they’ve become associated with in my mind: the potential to tear the wrapper. If you’re somewhat of a perfectionist, such a possibility will always linger in the back of your mind while performing what may be a mindless task for others. I’m not saying cooking osechi should be enjoyed as a mindless task—it’s just that the fragility of inari wrappers puts performing the task perfectly just a teeeeeeeny tiny bit out of my control at times which, well, is not preferable for someone obsessed with preparing aesthetically pleasing dishes.
5. Ozoni: New Year’s mochi soup
Clear broth with chrysanthemum leaves, kamaboko, carrot, celery, daikon, and toasted mochi. Supposed to be eaten as your first meal of the new year to bring good luck—roundness of the mochi symbolized fulfillment, while the stickiness represents bonds between family.
Ozoni is typically prepared on New Year’s Day, but the mochi that goes inside is prepared a few days before. Granpa is very particular about the size of everything; we have to make little mochi special for the ozoni and the veggies that are put in the soup have to be a specific matchstick width. When the assembly line comes together—one person ladling soup, another putting in the toppings, and another monitoring toasted mochi to be thrown in once it’s golden—it really feels like a family party.
4. Kamaboko: steamed fishcake
Fishcake, plain and simple—simply cut and plated. The red and white of the kamaboko in its half-moon shape resembles the rising sun and shares the colors of the Japanese flag.
Okay, so we literally just pop these babies out of the wrapper and cut them and…that’s it. But! We have special little blades that we use to cut the kamaboko into wavy pieces that are super fun. There’s also a satisfying feeling of slowly sinking the blade through the block of fishcake then hearing the pleasant shhhhhhhfwp as you peel the cut pieces apart.
3. Kuromame: “those yucky black beans”
Source: Just One Cookbook
Black soybeans soaked overnight in water then simmered in shoyu and sugar. Mame also means “health” in Japanese; the beans represent health in the new year.
Everyone used to hate these because we just had the canned ones! Buuut, after trying my partner’s mom’s kuromame, I learned what they’re supposed to taste like: sweet shoyu-glazed edamame. Ever since then, I’ve been using her recipe and the beans have become more popular with our family. I enjoy making them not only because the two-day process is satisfying, but also because I’ve been able to improve a dish in our family’s osechi repertoire.
2. Kinpira gobō: shredded burdock
Gobō pan-fried in some oil with dried chili peppers, then cooked further in sake, shoyu, and mirin. Toasted sesame seeds added last. Long roots symbolize stability, going deep like the roots of family.
Although I’m not a big fan of gobō’s taste, this is a very satisfying dish to make. Granpa buys a specific type of sponge that we use to scrape the skin off, then uses a special razor that we drag down the length of the root to make thin, long ribbons. He’s a very precise person and owns a special cutting board that’s marked in one-inch intervals; we use this to cut the ribbons of gobō into equal lengths then soak them in water to remove some excess starch. After all this prep, it gets tossed into a pan and undergoes a few tosses in oil and sauce—a great balance of satisfying preparation but straightforward cooking.
1. Nishime: root vegetable stew
The most ingredient-heavy dish: chicken, fishcake, sato-imo, kobumaki, daikon, lotus, gobō, carrots, takenoko, and konnyaku ribbons all simmered in dashi broth with sake, shoyu, and mirin. Full of hardy root vegetables with good meanings that used to be the only vegetables available in the winter.
Like I said earlier—cooking osechi is not a mindless task! Maybe it’s because my previously-an-electrical-engineer-particular-as-it-comes Granpa has a very specific way he wants everything cut, though…I wonder where I got my perfectionist tendencies in plating from? This dish takes the most prep and technical skill, but out of all osechi we make it feels the most like an Otera dish. Granpa explained that he taught me to cut all the ingredients the same way his mom (my great-grandmother) taught him :’)
Three-quarter turns on all the vegetables, pretty twisty ribbons of konnyaku, and a utensil-less stirring approach that prevents the vegetables from being broken in the process are all techniques learned from our ancestors, making nishime the favorite dish for both me and Granpa to prepare.