The New Year ("oshogatsu") is by far Japan’s most important festivity. “It’s an important family time, much like Christmas is in the West” – says Japanese food writer Yukari Elliott. This is echoed by Miyuki Suyari, founder of Simply Oishii Japanese Cooking classes in Tokyo: “I only remember one New Year’s that I spent outside Japan. If you live overseas, it’s just about one evening – you party, kiss at midnight and then it’s over. It was very sad. Ever since I’ve always been coming back for the New Year.”
Preparations start several weeks in advance. Nowadays, especially in cities, most families will prepare New Year’s mochi rice cakes in special machines or buy them ready-made. However, if you’re lucky, you may still come across traditional mochi-pounding events organised by local communities or schools. Finally, there are the New Year’s decorations that should be installed by Dec 28 to show the way to the New Year’s gods and keep away the bad spirits.
The last meal of the year, eaten just before midnight, is "toshikoshi" (“year-crossing”) soba noodles in a dashi broth. At midnight, bells in Buddhist temples ring 108 times to free people from 108 earthly desires that are the source of suffering.
The New Year’s Day starts with a traditional "ozoni" soup that contains mochi rice cakes and fish or chicken. “Foreigners cannot understand how we can eat mochi, especially that each year some people choke to death," says Yukari, "but tradition obliges.” Other festive delicacies, collectively called "osechi ryori" (literally “New Year’s food”) include a variety of colourful dishes, beautifully arranged in special lacquered boxes. Every dish in "osechi" is intended to guarantee happiness in the coming year. The food is eaten with special chopsticks that are rounded on both ends (one end for humans, the other – for gods).
Since cooking is taboo during the New Year’s holiday, "osechi ryori" is prepared in advance (or nowadays often bought in department stores, restaurants or on the internet). “During the first three days of the New Year, we don’t really have proper meals” says Miyuki. “We just drink all day long, while nibbling on bits of 'osechi ryori,' like you would nibble on peanuts or chips."
"Day one, people love the food, day two, they can still stand it and day three, they just have enough” adds Yukari. “But the great things about New Year’s is that it’s probably the only time during the year when even Japanese moms have nothing to do, no bento or dinner to prepare, and can just enjoy their time with the family.”
Kohaku Namasu (Red and White Salad) by Miyuki
This refreshing salad is an express yet delicious New Year’s dish, red and white being the colors of celebration in Japan. The salad can be prepared well in advance and stored in the fridge for a couple of days.
Ingredients (for 4-6 cups):
400 g daikon radish 80 g carrot 4-6 yuzu, depending on size
For the dressing: 4 Tbsp. vinegar 2,5 Tbsp. sugar 2 tsp. yuzu zest, very thinly julienned ½ tsp + ½ tsp salt
Thinly julienne daikon and carrots. Sprinkle ½ tsp of salt and mix with your hands. Leave in room temperature for 10 minutes. Mix the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl. Cut of the top part of yuzu and remove the flesh (you can use the juice in your tea or mix it with soy sauce and sugar to prepare a fish marinade). Squeeze out water from the vegetables and mix with the dressing. Add yuzu zest. Transfer the salad into yuzu cups.© Japan Today