Osechi: A New Year Tradition
by Shuntaro Okimoto
Happy New Year!
This time, I would like to introduce the dishes that are eaten during the New Year holiday in Japan.
Many people in Japan take about a week off of work or school for the New Year holiday. They travel to spend New Year's Eve, January 1st, and the following days with family and relatives living far away. As a result, traffic between urban areas such as Tokyo and the countryside is congested. Whether journeying on highways, high-speed rail, or at airports, this is the busiest time of year. I think it's like Christmas or Thanksgiving in the USA.
When families and relatives gather, we eat some traditional foods to mark the season. The most typical Japanese traditional dish for the New Year holiday is “Osechi.” Osechi is a dish in which many types of food are packed in square boxes of lacquer ware. Have you ever seen a Japanese lunch box, called “Bento?” It's like a luxury version of that. In the past, Osechi was exclusively homemade, but now some people buy it at the deli.
These lacquer boxes are stacked with traditional food inside. Unlike Bento boxes, these are only used during special occasions, such as for Osechi.
Osechi has three features. The first is that many of the foods inside are very seasoned and especially sweet. It is said that this is because in Japan seasonings, especially sugar, were precious, and people used them extravagantly only during the New Year.
The second feature is that the amount of food packed inside is large as a whole. If you see the quantity of food, you may think: Can we eat so much? Don't worry about that. Many of the foods in the box can be eaten for several days. Osechi is made with foods that have a long shelf life, so that everyone in the family can rest without cooking during the New Year holiday.
The third is that the foods packed in Osechi are filled with wishes. For example, we eat caramelized shrimps, with the hope that we live long lives to the point where our backs bend like shrimp. We also eat stewed vegetables, with the hope that our families will always be together.
This is a picture of typical food served in Osechi- such as the stewed vegetables on the right and shrimp on the left. Each item is carefully placed to be aesthetically pleasing.
Osechi is a dish that even Japanese people only eat during the New Year holiday. So, even if you go to Japan, you likely can't eat it at Japanese restaurants.
If you have the opportunity to go to Japan during the New Year holidays, you may be able to eat it in a limited number of restaurants or buy it at some delis. I want you to try traditional Japanese cuisine. I think you'll be surprised at how beautiful it looks and how delicious it is.