Osechi is the special traditional cuisine Japanese people eat at New Year, especially the first three days of January. It is eaten to pray for a bountiful harvest, excellent health, prosperity of descendants and for the safety of one’s family’s throughout the year.
The origin dates back to the old calendar from China. In the Heian period (794-1185), people celebrated sekku or division of seasons. Annual events were formalized at the imperial court, and a banquet called "New Year's Day Sechie (meeting on seasonal turning point)” was held among the nobility, where the sumptuous meal was called osechiku. This culture spread to the common people during the Edo period (1603-1867) and the word evolved as osechi. The stacked style became common from the late Edo to Meiji periods (1868-1912).
Osechi dishes are mainly prepared in such a way that they can be stored for a long time, helping families to be free from housework, at least for the first three days of the New Year. According to one theory, New Year is a time to give a rest to the god Koujin, who protects the kitchen. It was considered bad luck to cook on New Year's Day because cooking over a fire would offend Koujin. Another supposition is because fire during the New Year is considered sacred, so people refrained from using fire at home during this time.
Each dish has its own meaning and they are placed in specific tiers of one to five. They are in stacked boxes to wish for multiple good fortune and happiness. It has long been said that odd numbers bring good luck. The idea that even numbers are divisible by two, or that they are divided into two, is not appropriate for celebratory occasions. Five tiers were official in the old days, but recently, three tiers have become most popular.
Ichi-no-ju, or the first tier, contains sweet dishes. The most classic sweet dish is kuri-kinton (sweet chestnut). For the shiny yellow color and its Chinese characters written as kin meaning gold, the item represents treasure and is associated with a prosperous year.
Kuromame (sweet black soybeans) represent a wish for diligence and hard work. The word for beans, mame, means faithful and well organized. The beans are meant to ward off evil spirits and to wish that people will work diligently in the fields until they get a dark tan.
Tazukuri are candied sardines, ta (rice fields) and zukuri (to make). A long time ago, sardines unexpectedly made a great harvest when they were used to fertilize rice paddies. Since then, sardines have long been eaten as a symbol of good harvest.
In the old days, important books were rolled in a scroll, so the shape of datemaki, or castella, resembles scrolls and are eaten in hopes of enriching one's knowledge. Sugar was imported to Nagasaki Prefecture earlier on, and sweet desserts became superb feasts served at celebrations. Datemaki is a dish named after the sponge cake of Nagasaki's Shippoku cuisine (Chinese and Western cuisine arranged to Japanese tastes), which resembles the pattern of the kimono of fashionable young people called date-sha in the Edo period.
The second tier, ni-no-ju, holds seafood, grilled meat and vinegar dressed foods. Buri, or yellowtail, is a good-luck fish for a successful career in the future. The reason is because in the Edo period, samurai warriors and scholars’ titles changed as they went up the ladder and in the same way, the names of yellowtail differ as it grows.
Tai, grilled sea bream, an indispensable dish for celebratory meals, emanates from the word medetai, meaning congratulatory. In the same way, kombu-maki, or kelp rolls, come from the word yorokobu, meaning feeling amused or happy. Kazunoko, or herring roe, is a coined word of kazu (number) and ko (child). It conveys the prosperity of offspring deriving from the countless number of eggs.
The shape of kamaboko, or fish paste, symbolizes sunrise. Its red color is associated with joy and white denotes sacredness. Another red and white colored dish is namasu, carrots and daikon radish dressed with vinegar, which serves both as a celebration and as a palate cleanser. It resembles mizuhiki, a traditional Japanese paper ribbon used for celebratory gifts, inclined to peace and tranquility.
Ise lobster or shrimps is a symbol of longevity - to live long until their back becomes round like a shrimp. Boiled clam is a good-luck item symbolizing marital bliss, as there is only one clam that fits perfectly.
San-no-ju, or the third layer, is a dish made of vegetables from the mountains. Kuwai, or arrowhead, is used to express good luck because it produces large sprouts. Tataki gobo, or pounded burdock, is auspicious because burdocks grow deep into the ground, which it is said to indicate a strong foundation. It is pounded until it cracks open for softer texture; thus it is said to open up to bring in good luck.
The fourth box, yon-no-ju, is for other delicacies such as chikuzen-ni, a tasty dish of simmered mixed vegetables. It includes lotus root — their holes are associated with good prospects for the future. You can easily peek to the other side of the hole, depicting a good outlook.
There are various theories regarding the fifth tier, go-no-ju. Some say it is not actually filled with food, but meant to be filled with hope, like an antechamber layer. Sometimes an empty box is used as a receptacle to fill with good fortune.
The traditional use of the stacked boxes has changed throughout the years, and the contents of osechi dishes, the number of tiers, and the way to fill the boxes differ slightly from region to region, as customs differ in each district. For example, in the Kanto region, the three basic types of celebratory dish are tazukuri, kazunoko and kuromame, while in the Kansai region, chopped burdock root sometimes replaces kuromame. In the Edo period, these three ingredients were so readily available to the common people that any household could welcome the New Year with only these items.
For the first three days of the New Year, festive chopsticks with tapered ends are used. The other end is shared by the gods, so it is bad manners if you use both sides. Otoso is a spice sake to be drunk during the New Year's holiday and is said to ward off evil spirits for the coming year.
Many households today have osechi on New Year's Eve. It replaces the festive dinner when families get together for the countdown. The advantage is that it can be eaten as fresh as possible, and preparation for dinner on Dec 31 can be saved.
In my family, I remember my mother used to make most of the dishes from scratch, and we had fun splurging at supermarkets. But cooking everything is heavily time consuming and also with the recent rise in the cost of living, it is very expensive to buy all the ingredients. Nowadays, many people order osechi from restaurants or buy online, as do we.
I recommend you to buy ready-made osechi online and enjoy every dish all prepared for you. Gaju is an online shopping site, specifically catered to celebratory items. Along with the traditional items, their three-tiered “Kouju” includes modern diversified items such as roast beef, marinated salmon and duck terrine, all very easy on Western palette too. Why don’t you try getting a set this year and celebrate the Japanese spirit in an authentic way?
Comes with outer case for osechi, furoshiki (wrapping cloth), serving instructions, festive chopsticks
48 different kinds of savories and sweets
Gorgeous 3-Tiered Japanese/Western Osechi “Kouju”
Portion: 3 to 4 persons
Includes: Furoshiki, serving instructions, festive chopsticks
Delivery method: Yamato Transport
Delivery date: Anytime between December 28 and December 30 (time may not be specified)
Expiration date: January 31, 2023
Contents: 6.5" 3-tiered set, 52 items in total
Size 18.3 x 18.3 x 4.0 3-tier
Storage: Refrigeration required (-18°C or below)
Cancellation by: December 10
Sugar flavored chestnuts / Kintoki / Simmered abalone / Matsumae-zuke (marinated abalone) / Herring roe / Sweet peaches / Pounded burdock / Tazukuri / Grilled shrimp / White kamaboko / Red kamaboko / Namasu / Salmon roe in soy sauce / Datemaki /Chorogi (pickled Japanese artichoke) / Kuromame
Dried tofu / Simmered bamboo shoots / Simmered konnyaku / Dressed squid with tobikko (flying fish roe) / Green beans / Simmered shiitake mushroom / Steamed shrimp dumpling / Duck grilled with Japanese pepper / Sweet simmered sweet potato / Ginger root / Honeyed kumquat / Grilled salmon with koji miso / Grilled octopus / Conger eel roll with burdock / Grilled scallop / Steamed crab dumpling / Crab flavored salad / Kelp roll with cod roe
Olive skewers / Camembert cheese / Soft salami / Marinated salmon with capers / Dried tomato in red wine / Duck terrine / Steamed chicken with sesame sauce and wolf berries / Chinese jellyfish / Roast beef with Japanese pepper / Shrimp with chili sauce / Cornichon pickles / Crab flavored terrine / Threadfin bream with French mustard dressing / Ham
Click here to see how to purchase the product on the Gaju website.