When the current year draws to a close, the Japanese are busy with preparing for the upcoming oshogatsu (お正月) by cleaning up their houses, purchasing or preparing food to be cooked and eaten during the New Year holidays, travelling to their hometowns to reunite with their families or taking a much-deserved break overseas with their loved ones. Among the various delicacies eaten during oshogatsu, let’s find out more about the ozoni (お雑煮), a soup which contains mochi and other ingredients which can take on different forms depending on the location. If you happen to be in Japan during the New Year, be sure to try the local ozoni and experience the uniqueness of this dish!
There is no agreed theory as to how ozoni came about but the first mention of this dish was back in the Muromachi era when the word appeared in “Suzuka Kaki” (鈴鹿家記), the family records of the Suzuka family in Kyoto. Ozoni which was called houzou (烹雑) previously, was said to be a dish which originated from the samurai families and spread to the commoners later. In the samurai families, ozoni was regarded as more of a side dish to go with alcohol during banquets rather than a main dish on its own.
The types of ingredients which go into ozoni differ depending on location but there are three basic components which make up the dish:
The mochi used in ozoni are usually square or round. Most of the ozoni versions use the former while the latter is more commonly seen in the Kansai, Chugoku and Shikoku regions. In addition, those using the round mochi tend not to grill it before adding it to the soup while the reverse holds true for those using square mochi. There is usually no filling in the mochi but in some places, mochi with red bean filling is used in ozoni. Despite mochi being a staple ingredient in the dish, there are places such as those in mountainous areas where it is difficult to obtain rice to make mochi due to the unfavourable agricultural conditions.
Apparently, there seems to be a reason why the Kanto region and the colder areas up north tend to use the square version of the mochi. During the Edo era when the population was largely concentrated in the Kanto region and its surrounding areas, it was difficult to make the round mochi as it had to be shaped one by one. In order to meet the huge demand, the square mochi which could be made very quickly and in large numbers thus it became the preferred choice. Another theory was that since the samurai families were controlling most of East Japan during the Edo era, they liked the square mochi which was cut into pieces using a knife thus symbolising “cutting away of their enemies”.
Dashi refers to the soup used in the ozoni and is usually made from kelp, dried bonito flakes, dried sardines and dried squid. It has been said that about 68% of the ozoni versions use a clear soup i.e. soy sauce and salt added as seasoning to the soup while the rest uses miso or natto to make a cloudier version e.g. in the Kansai region where white miso is used. It was said that due to the saying of “shobu ni miso wo tsukeru” (勝負にみそをつける) which means to fail and lose face, the use of miso in the ozoni’s soup was a bad omen thus the samurai families preferred to use clear soup instead.
3. Side ingredients
Depending on the location, the side ingredients to be used will differ. For example, in prefectures which are near the sea, there is extensive use of seafood such as salmon roe in the Hokkaido version of ozoni. On the other hand, for inland regions, they tend to use more vegetables or their local agricultural products. In addition, signature items unique to the region will be extensively used in the ozoni thus making it possible to try vastly different versions across Japan.
As the ozoni is a New Year’s dish, the ingredients which go into it are added for auspiciousness or have a special meaning. For example, as mochi is stretchable and can be pulled long, it represents longevity. Local produce is added to pray for a bountiful harvest in the new year. Chicken (Tori in Japanese, but pronounced ‘natori’), is used to signify getting ahead of others and achieving success.
Given that there are so many types of ozoni all over Japan, allow me to introduce five very special versions here so do give them a try if you can!
The Miyagi version features grilled square mochi and a soy sauce-based soup made from dried gobies. The local signature item sasakamaboko (笹かまぼこ , bamboo leaf fish cake) is added to the ozoni and you might even see an entire goby fish in the Sendai version. In addition, it is the custom here to finish up the meal by having a bowl of red bean soup containing mochi after eating the ozoni.
Typically, the Niigata version contains grilled square mochi and a soy sauce-based soup made from small fish. What’s unique about this version is that it contains salmon roe and salmon slices within the same bowl. In some shops, even tonkatsu is added to the ozoni!
Usually, the same type of ozoni is eaten during the New Year but in Osaka, there seem to be two types eaten on the first two days of the New Year. The first day’s version contains round mochi which is boiled together with the white miso-based soup and ingredients such as grilled tofu, radish and carrots.
The ozoni eaten on the second day of the New Year differs in that the round mochi is grilled, the soup is clear and uses soy sauce as its seasoning and relatively simpler side ingredients like potherb mustard.
The version in Tottori Prefecture uses boiled round mochi. What’s special about here is that the soup is neither clear nor miso-based but made from red beans! Apparently, there are no other ingredients added to the ozoni here other than the red beans and mochi. In mountainous regions of Tottori though, the miso and soy sauce-based soups are also available.
In Okinawa, the people there do not actually have the custom of eating ozoni during the New Year. However, they have another dish called Nakamijiru which could be said to be the Okinawan equivalent of ozoni. Pork giblets are cooked in a clear soup made from bonito flakes.
If you get the chance, be sure to try some ozoni during your next New Year holidays!