People in Japan celebrate the new year with various types of food, like toshikoshi soba and ozoni mochi (rice cake soup).
The most common, although its popularity is waning a little, is osechi ryori, a traditional cuisine that has been around since the Heian Era that began in 794. Osechi ryori is a sort of eclectic collection of small cold dishes, each denoting a special meaning and wish for the upcoming year. The dishes are packed together in lacquer bento boxes called jubako, and these boxes are stacked together to symbolize the piling up of good luck and fortune.
Many of the dishes in osechi use word play; for example, tai (red snapper fish) is part of a pun with the word omedetai, meaning “celebratory” or “festive.”
Some of the foods have a unique shape that represents special wishes. Datemaki is a sweet egg roll whose rolled up shape resembles a traditional scroll, hoping for accumulation of more knowledge throughout the year.
Below is a list of common food items used in osechi ryori and their meanings.
Datemaki (sweetened egg rolls)
Datemaki is a sweet egg roll that mixes hanpen, a type of fish cake, making it fluffier in texture compared to a normal egg roll. The scroll-like omelet shape symbolizes the acquisition of knowledge and culture.
Shrimp are often used in osechi ryori to wish for a long life, even after your back has bent over like a shrimp.
Gobo (burdock root)
Gobo is a thin and long vegetable whose roots are firmly planted in the ground. Not only is it supposed to bring good luck and stability to the household, it is also a healthy option to start off the year.
Kazunoko (herring roe)
Herring lay many eggs in a tight cluster. Herring roe marinated in soy sauce seasoning is eaten to wish for a prosperous family.
Kikuka-kabu (chrysanthemum shaped turnips)
The chrysanthemum, or kiku, one of the national flowers of Japan, represents longevity. For osechi, some turnips are dyed red and cut up to resemble the shape of a kiku flower. The red and white turnip flower petals are seasoned with vinegar and make for a good appetizer dish.
Kobu-maki (seaweed rolls)
Kobu-maki uses konbu, or seaweed to wrap dried herring or other types of fish. It is a play on the word yorokobu, meaning “to rejoice.”
Kohaku Kamaboko (red and white fishcakes)
The semicircle shape of the bite-size kamaboko looks like a sunrise, representing an entry into the new year. New Year’s colors red and white is said to symbolize happiness and purity, as well as protection against evil spirits.
Kuri-kinton (candied chestnuts and sweet potatoes)
Kuri-kinton is said to bring about good economic fortune as the color of mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts resembles treasures of gold.
Kuromame (black soy beans)
There are multiple layers of meaning in the sweet black soy beans dish. Mame means “bean,” but it can also be used to describe someone who works diligently. The dark color of the kuromame is also said to represent a healthy suntan, and the dish contains the wish for those who eat it to stay healthy and be able to work productively throughout the year.
Renkon (lotus root)
The lotus root is another vegetable that brings good luck. The many holes on the surface of renkon symbolize a good outlook for the future. It also represents fertility and purity. Chikuzenni, a local cuisine of Kyushu that uses renkon, daikon (white radish), and ninjin (carrots), all of which end with "n," resembling the sound of un, or “good luck,” is also an osechi favorite.
One taro plant yields many roots, so satoimo represents the wish for many children.
Tai (red snapper)
Tai is a pun for omedetai, meaning “festive.” Grilled red snapper fish is a staple of osechi ryori.
Tatsukuri or Gomame (dried small sardines)
Tatsukuri, also known as gomame, is a dish of small crispy sardines seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, and sweet sake. The name tatsukuri, literally meaning rice farming, comes from a custom to scatter baby sardines in a field as fertilizer, wishing for a good harvest. The kanji for gomame is written as 50,000 grains of rice, also symbolizing the wish for abundant crops.© Japan Today