The new year period, known as Oshogatsu, is a very significant occasion in Japan. Families gather, temples and shrines are visited, special new year’s cards (called nengajō) are exchanged and much preparation takes place, including a thorough cleaning of the house. A number of special dishes are exclusively eaten during the new year period as well, and these too need to be either cooked or purchased ahead of the occasion.
Here, we will look at three foods in particular that are eaten at this special time of year.
Toshikoshi soba is especially long soba (buckwheat noodles) that are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. Toshikoshi literally means “year-crossing”. However its deeper meaning is to let go of the old year in readiness for the promise of the new one, and the soba thus serves as a symbolic bridge between the two. The noodles are also very easy to cut apart, making it easy to symbolically “break up” the problems of the old year.
Toshikoshi soba is typically eaten in a soup made from dashi, mirin and soy sauce. Toppings vary greatly and may include tempura-style shrimp, spring onions, kamaboko (fish cakes), raw egg, and more.
Ozoni , or simply zoni, is a special soup with two main characteristics. The first is that it is eaten at new year, and the second is that it contains mochi, a sticky pounded rice cake that is itself particularly popular at new year as well as generally during winter.
As is the case with toshikoshi soba, variations of the dish abound. In the case of ozoni, the soup base varies by region; for example, the ozoni made in Kanto is made with a clear dashi base, while white miso paste is added to the Kansai variation. Regional variations also influence the toppings, as do personal preferences and family traditions. Some popular examples include chicken or fish, green leafy vegetables such as spinach or komatsuna, and kamaboko.
As well as ozoni, there are numerous other special dishes that are eaten on New Year’s Day in Japan. Collectively, these are called osechi. Osechi is readily identifiable by the special layered lacquered boxes, called jubako, that the many dishes are served in.
Traditionally, osechi is prepared in advance so that all family members can rest for the first day or so of the new year rather than fuss with cooking. While osechi boxes can be ordered in part or in full from both restaurants and department stores these days, many of the dishes are still prepared at home and it takes considerable time to do so.
The dishes that make up osechi are typically ones that represent good fortune and prosperity. Again, there is variation in which dishes a family will actually serve, but there are some common ones to look out for, such as:
Datemaki: sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or shrimp, these are associated with brightness, auspicious days, and scholarship.
Kuromame: sweet black soy beans, these are for hard work and good health.
Kamaboko: (again!) the pink and white colouring of these fish cakes are thought to resemble the first sunrise of the year and are thus associated with the festive season.
Konbumaki: rolled seaweed, for happiness
Tazukuri: also known as gomame, these are small dried sardines in a sweet sauce and symbolise hope for a fruitful harvest.
New Year being the huge occasion that it is in Japan, it is unsurprising that there are so many unique dishes associated with the event and so much meaning attached to each. Enjoy the food of Japan’s biggest event of the year, and see if it makes your own year become that bit more auspicious!