What is “Osechi," special dishes for the Japanese New Year?

Updated: Apr 26

What are the meanings behind Osechi, such as "longevity" and "money luck"?

In Japan, we eat special dishes called "Osechi" during the New Year's holiday, the biggest day of the year. Osechi is a feast that contains the wishes of the Japanese people for good fortune, safety in the home, good health and longevity, and a good harvest. Now, let's take a look at the details of Osechi.

Table of Contents

1. What is Osechi, the Japanese New Year's feast?

2. Typical Osechi dishes and their meanings!

3. What is "Otoso," served with Osechi?

4. Unique Osechi full of local flavors.

5. Summary

1. What is Osechi, the Japanese New Year's feast?

Osechi is a special festive feast served on New Year's Day, the most important day for Japanese people. In Japan, families enjoy Osechi and Zo-ni on New Year's Day. Originally, Osechi was a celebratory meal for the aristocracy. Still, farmers and fishers, who lived close to nature and whose harvest and even lives depended on the weather, also made and offered Kagami-mochi (round mirror-shaped rice cakes) at the end of the year. They began to prepare Osechi-ryori, a simple but festive New Year's meal, using dried foods such as kelp and beans, as well as locally grown vegetables and fish, to thank the gods. Even today, Osechi is eaten all over the country, conveying the traditions unique to each region.

Each region has its customs regarding the arrangement and appearance of Osechi. Initially, only a few prefectures in Mid to Western Japan used the stacked box style. Most Osechi is packed in stacked boxes today because, in the middle of the Showa period (1926-1989), Upscale Japanese restaurants and major department stores started selling Osechi by order. They adopted the stacked boxes as they were more convenient to sell. In the Kanto region, Tokushima, and Okinawa prefectures, serving Osechi on a platter is more common. At the same time, the original majority nationwide was the "New Year's meal" style celebrated with individual serving. While incorporating local ingredients, it is common throughout the country to prepare dishes with wishes such as "health and longevity.

2. Typical Osechi dishes and their meanings!

One of the characteristics of Osechi dishes is that they are relatively well seasoned and many of them last for a long time. This is because if the food is cooked before New Year's Eve, the god of Kamado (fire god) can rest (i.e., not cook); thus, women responsible for cooking can rest during the New Year. Let us introduce some of the typical Osechi dishes and their meanings.

Clockwise from the top of the photo

・Kobu-maki: Rolled kelp stewed in savory and sweet sauce. "Kelp=kobu" in Japanese associated with the word "yorokobu" (to be happy).

・Nishime: A general term for a dish that is slowly simmered so that little liquid remains. Nishime is made by simmering a variety of ingredients together in one pot with the wish for the family to get along well. The photo shows konjac, which is rich in dietary fiber and is said to cleanse the intestines.

・Date-maki: Rolled egg and fish paste cake. The word “Date" means "glamour," and The shape resembling a scroll (a book) suggests a wish for learning and education.

・Tazukuri: Caramelized sardines. The name means "rice paddy" in Japanese and is derived from rice paddies fertilized with sardines produced a good harvest. It is also known as "Gomame" (50,000 =a lot of rice).

・Kuro-mame : Sweet black soybeans. A wish to ward off evil spirits and good health, so that people can work hard(=mame) and live well.

・Carrots in Nishime; assorted simmered vegetables: Plum blossom carrots (carrots cut into the shape of plum blossoms, which bloom fragrantly in the cold winter and are considered good luck as a symbol of vitality.)

・Kazunoko(Herring roe): "Kazunoko" is the roe of herring. Because herring has many eggs, it is used to wish for fertility and the prosperity of offspring.

・Red and white Kamaboko (fish cake): Red and white stripes resemble the first sunrise of the year. The red color means "protection from evil" and the white color means "purity".

Center of the plate

・Su-renkon(Vinegared lotus root): To be able to see into the future through the many holes.

・Kuri-kinton: Mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts. "Kinton" refers to gold-colored dumplings, meaning gold, silver, and treasure, and is a wish for good luck.

・Prawns: Prawns: Long whiskers and a bent back suggest longevity. It is a wish for success in life, as it repeatedly sheds its skin.

3. What is "Otoso," served with Osechi?

"Otoso" is a traditional Japanese drink served with Osechi (New Year's meal). It is also served when visiting shrines. It looks like alcohol, but do you know what it is? Otoso is a liquor soaking a Chinese herbal medicine called Toso-san in Mirin (sweet rice wine) or sake. The name comes from the meaning of "To=slaughtering evil spirits and So=reviving the soul in Chinese characters. It was introduced from China and was drunk by aristocrats in the Heian period (794-1185), after which it spread to the general public.

In Japan, Toso-san can be purchased at Chinese herbal medicine stores for several hundred yen per bag. It contains a blend of herbal medicines such as sansho (Japanese pepper), which has stomachic properties; dried tangerine peel, which is used to soothe coughs, colds, and chills; cinnamon, which has antipyretic and intestinal properties; star anise and cloves, which have antibacterial and stomachic properties. It is perfect for drinking during the New Year's holidays when people drink too much or overeat.

Once you have Toso-san, making Otoso is super easy. If you want to make it sweet and rich, simply soak it in Hon-mirin (sweet cooking wine) for 5 to 8 hours. Use sake if you want to make it less sweet lighter. It is served as an aperitif before eating Zo-ni or Osechi.In this case, it is a rule that the sake cups are served in the order of youngest to oldest. Of course, since alcohol is contained in Ostoso, the young ones can imitate drinking it. We offer Otoso guests a welcome drink in New Year.

4. Unique Osechi full of local flavors.

"Ebisu" in Ishikawa Prefecture

Ebisu, made of egg and agar, is an indispensable food for festivals and celebrations in Ishikawa Prefecture. It has its roots in "Tamago Kanten(=Agar)," a recipe of which can be found in the cookbooks of the Edo period, "Edo Ryori Tsuku" and "Ryori Hyakuchin." It is said to be a treat using eggs and sugar, which were precious com modities in those days. This dish has various names and variations of recipes depending on the region. Ebisu with beautiful patterns created by eggs is traditionally packed in the first layer of the Osechi box. In Toyama Prefecture, where the former Kaga Clan was located, it is called "Bekko(=amber)" due to the color. (Image provided by: Aoki Cooking School Ishikawa Prefecture )

"Bori” in Wakayama Prefecture

Bor is a unique Osechi (New Year's Day) dish served in a bowl with a large taro piled high with its skin on. It is a traditional New Year's dish from the Ogawa district of Ayuka-wa in Wakayama Prefecture.

The district is called "No mochi pounding village." According to the legend, around 1330, when the Prince fled from Kyoto after being caught up in a politi cal uprising, he asked the villagers making rice cakes for the New Year to have some. Still, the villagers mistook him for a mountain priest and refused. When the villagers found out later that it was the noble Prince, they were ashamed that they had rejected such a request. Since then, they have forbidden making rice cakes on New Year's Day and eaten boiled taro called "Bori" as a lesson. The taro is simmered in bonito broth and soy sauce to last long. (Photo by Public Relations Division, Wakayama Prefecture)

5. Summary

Nowadays, there are more and more conventional Osechi to suit various tastes and lifestyles, such as Western-style, Chinese style, and for small families. Some families insist on making homemade Osechi preserve the traditional flavor, while others buy ready-made Osechi to enjoy. Nevertheless, spending time with the family around Osechi is a classic scene of the Japanese New Year.

Are you interested in making Osechi dishes that contain the wishes of the Japanese people?

Let's give it a try at JCI!

By making Osechi, which is filled with the ingenuity and wisdom of the Japanese people since ancient times, you will improve your Japanese cuisine skills.

For inquiries, please contact us!

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