2016 is coming to a close, and everyone is making plans for the holidays. Of course, many of these plans are bound to include holiday feasts with family and friends. In Japan, the typical time for this gathering is at New Years, and the food that is served is called osechi-ryori. Osechi-ryori is a collection of dishes that are traditionally served in two or three tier bento boxes called jūbako. Each dish has a symbolic meaning and in its entirety osechi-ryori is a wonderful introduction to the many cooking styles and flavors found across Japan.
Originally, the term osechi-ryori referred to the food served at sechie banquets held by the Heian imperial court (794 – 1185) to celebrate the changing of the seasons. From this beginning over a millennium ago, the term has evolved to refer to the New Year’s feast we know today. The dishes that comprise osechi-ryori are made to last multiple days, with the intention of giving family members a break from cooking during the holiday celebrations. Originally, the idea of not cooking during the New Year, which typically lasts three days in Japan, was also due to the superstition that being cut or burned during this time would lead to bad luck for the rest of the year.
Unlike holiday feasts in the United States, which typically take the form of dinner parties, osechi-ryori is normally eaten over the course of a few days. Accordingly, as modern appliances like refrigerators were not invented yet when this tradition began, the food served is high in preservatives like salt and sugar, and many dishes are pickled. While in the past families generally worked for days preparing the elaborate dishes, today, many people prefer to buy their osechi-ryori premade. Aiding this trend is the availability of reasonably priced sets of high-quality osechi-ryori from supermarkets, convenience stores, and local restaurants.
While the exact osechi-ryori dishes served in the various regions of Japan may differ, they all are based on the principle of expressing the desire for health and longevity. One example that commonly found on many New Year’s tables across the country and that has strong connections to the New Year’s celebration is kuromame. Kuromame literally translates as “black beans,”although they are very different from the black beans typically found in the U.S. These beans are actually a kind of soybean, which are boiled for hours in a sweet sauce that condenses into a syrup, and which represent wishes for health. Other examples include dishes like kazunoko (herring roe) and tazukuri (small dried sardines), which represent wishes for the prosperity of one’s descendants and wishes for a good harvest, respectively.