The New Year or “Shogatsu” is the perfect time for Japanese to carry out their yearly rituals, though it may not hold religious significance for them. One of their beliefs is that the God of the Year or “Toshigama-sama”, who brings abundance and happiness to each family, visits their homes. In preparation for this, each family makes a very special variety of dishes known as “osechi-ryori”.
The word “osechi” originally came from o-sechi, meaning “season” or “significant period”. Every year, the Imperial Court of Kyoto holds five seasonal festivals, one of which is the New Year’s Day festival. The custom of celebrating these events originated in China. For the first three days of the New Year, a long time ago, it was considered a taboo to use the hearth or cook any meals. This is the reason why osechi was made by the end of the previous year.
Osechi was traditionally prepared at home, but these days you can find bentos containing osechi anywhere in Japan at specialty stores, grocery stores and even convenience stores!
Osechi consists of a variety of dishes such as: daidai, datemaki, kamaboko, kazunoko, konbu, kuro-mame, kohaku-namasu, tai, tazukuri, zoni, ebi and nishiki tamago. Daidai is a Japanese bitter orange which means “several generations”, coming from the fact that the fruit stays in the tree for several years. This symbolizes fertility in the New Year. Datemaki is an omelette which has been rolled and it consists of fish paste and mashed shrimp, its taste is sweet. Kamaboko is a broiled fish cake symbolizing the rising sun of Japan. Kazunoko symbolises the wish to have a lot of children in the New Year. Konbu is a kind of a seaweed, meaning “joy”. Kuro-mame are black soybeans, they symbolize good health for the whole year.
Japan has a lot of special dishes with special meanings all throughout the year, with osechi being one of the most elaborate!