皆さん ー 明けましておめでとうございます！
It’s the New Year, and with it comes all sorts of resolutions. So why not resolve to eat more Japanese food?
A good place to start is with traditional New Years foods. Japanese people eat a special selection of dishes during the New Year celebration called osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理), typically shortened to osechi. This consists of boiled seaweed (昆布 konbu), fish cakes (蒲鉾 kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with chestnut (栗きんとん kurikinton), simmered burdock root (金平牛蒡 kinpira gobō), and sweetened black soybeans (黒豆 kuromame).
In the earliest days, osechi consisted only of nimono, boiled vegetables with soy sauce and sugar or mirin. Over the generations, the variety of food included in osechi has increased. Today osechi may refer to anything prepared specially for the New Year, and some foreign dishes have been adopted as "Westernized osechi" (西洋お節 seiyō-osechi) or as "Chinese-style osechi" (中華風お節 chūkafū osechi). And while osechi was traditionally prepared at home, it is also sold ready-made in specialty stores, grocery stores, and even convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven.
Osechi ryori was originally a way for housewives (and their families) to survive the first several days of the New Year, when stores throughout Japan were closed. The foods that make up osechi can be prepared in advance and then sit out in a cool area for a few days without spoiling. Most often everything is placed in compartmentalized lacquer boxes that are stacked in layers.
Every dish has a special meaning, and eating the right foods can set your year up for all sorts of success. Here are some examples:
Gobo Kobumaki (昆布巻) – Burdock root wrapped in kombu, tied with kanpyo (a kind of gourd) and simmered in niboshi dashi. Burdock is a very long root that symbolizes the Japanese ideal of a life, long and stable. This preparation also represents joy, as “kobu” sounds like “yorokobu” which means joyful.
Renkon no Nitsuke (レンコンの煮付け) – Lotus root cut like chrysanthemums then fried and simmered in a sweet soy sauce. The many holes in it allow us to look through to the year ahead.
Kikuka Kabu (菊花蕪) – This is a whole baby turnip cut to look like a chrysanthemum flower that’s then pickled in vinegar, salt and sugar with some chili pepper in the middle. The chrysanthemum is the symbol of the emperor and is used to mark joyous occasions.
Pirikara Konnyaku (ピリ辛コンニャク)- Konnyaku (yam jelly) simmered in a sweet and spicy sauce.
Nimono (煮物) – Fresh baby taro, carrots carved like plum blossoms, and shiitake mushrooms simmered in a katsuo/kombu dashi. The shape of the carrots in this dish is symbolic in that every plum flower bears one fruit, making this another wish for fertility.
Kuri Kinton (栗金飩) – Sweetened and mashed Japanese sweet potatoes with sweet chestnuts. The characters for kinton literally mean “group of gold”, so with the golden color of this sweet, it represents a wish for wealth and financial success in the new year.
Ebi no Shioyaki (エビの塩焼き) – giant shrimp - the shape of the shrimp is similar to that of an older person and represents longevity.
Kazunoko (数の子) – Herring roe seasoned in katsuo/kombu dashi and soy sauce. These crunchy roe sacs each contain thousands of eggs and symbolize a wish for fertility.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾) – The quintessential pink and white Japanese fishcakes are traditionally sliced and layered in alternating rows of pink and white. While it’s a stretch to say that pink and red are the same color, the bands of “red” and white kamaboko are supposed to symbolize the rising sun.
Datemaki (伊達巻) – These sweet golden rounds of egg and hanpen (fishcake), have a ribbed outer surface mimicking the shining sun, a wish for sunny days ahead.
Kuromame (黒豆) – Large black soybeans simmered with sugar and soy sauce. Aside from being full of nutrients, this dish also symbolizes good health, as “mame” which means bean, sounds like another word that means hard work and good health.
Ikura (イクラ) – Seasoned salmon roe. In addition to being an auspicious shade of red, the eggs represent fertility.
Here’s a great list of the types of foods and their meanings.