Christmas passes by without much notice in Japan, of course there are garish lights and big sales, but these are just ploys to separate you from your hard earned cash. I say hard earned, if you’re reading this article in the office, get back to work! The big holiday in Japan is undoubtedly the New Year celebrations, a holiday that spills over a few days and encompasses millennium old traditions and the peak of consumerism, SALES!
But no matter how you decide to spend the New Year, chances are you will come across the traditional bento box known as 御節料理 (Osechi ryori), which often comes in three tiers and costs more than a month’s worth of Sukiya gyu-don. The staple tastes of osechi consist of sweet, sour and dried foods; many believe this is because the tradition goes back to when both the shops were closed and the fridge had yet to be invented, so food with a little longer shelf life was essential. Although true, the tradition goes back way further!
Osechi ryori’s roots can be traced to the Heian Period, when the New Year was such a holy holiday, that people were forbidden to use their stove, unless making the soup, zoni. Because of this, the lady of the house would cook a vast amount a few days before the stove ban, which would put them through until they were allowed to cook again. Although there are thousands of foods to choose from now, at the time people prepared and ate nimono, which are boiled vegetables soaked and coated in soy sauce and sugar.
It may have taken 1000 years, but it seems amazing that the recipes come from such humble beginnings as not only are they complicated, they are often an odd mixture of tastes which many of us foreign nationals find hard to stomach. But what might surprise you is that many Japanese people hate osechi too! So why eat it? Well, like so much else in this fair country, people are bound by obligation and tradition and some of the most disgusting snacks promise a different set of good fortunes for the eater.
• Daidai (橙): This is a very bitter orange, which only really gets eaten at New Year’s. Perhaps a promotional scheme as cunning as the invention of White Day, but daidai can also be written as 代々, which means “from generation to generation” and eating this nasty little fruits allows children a single wish… wishing to not have to eat this stuff is in the same vein as wishing for more wishes, NOT ALLOWED!
• Kamaboko (蒲鉾): For those of you that are unfamiliar with kamaboko, they are steamed fish cakes, often died red, white or pink. If you think that sounds disgusting, you’re right on the money. In block form, it looks like a huge fish sausage, but it is normally cut into slices and arranged in patterns, often representing the rising sun. It has less taste than water and feels like chewing a soggy sponge.
• Kazunoko (数の子): Known as herring roe amongst English speakers, this little beauty will guarantee an ample supply of babies popping out in the coming year, so if you want to stay young, free and single, please practice safe snacks!
• Konbu (昆布): This is probably my least favorite… although it does have some tough competition. Thick slices of dried seaweed, that suck the flavor away from everything else and leaves you with a feeling akin to a fish pissing in your mouth (not that I’m talking from experience). Ironically, the Japanese associate konbu with the word yorokobu, which means joy or contentment.
• Black Beans (黒豆): You would be hard pushed to have any sort of Japanese tradition without bloody beans creeping in somehow, whether you eat them, drink them, crush them or throw them at demons’ faces, beans are everywhere. But mame can also mean health, so eating 黒豆 ensures that you keep yours.
• Dried Sardines (田作り): NAGMAG’s own Doug Breath has a personal vendetta against these poor little fish, claiming they look like zombies with eating disorders and are as tasty as a glass of warm happoshu. But, sardines were once used to fertilize rice fields, hence the kanji meaning “rice field making” so a plate of these will promise a year of rich harvests, or prosperity for the non-farmers amongst you.
• Nishiki Tamago (錦卵): The egg whites and yoke are separated for this dish, in the belief that the yellowy yoke looks like gold and the egg white represents silver. A little taste of this will ensure your coffers will not run dry over the coming year.