Osechi-ryori (御節料理)

Osechi-ryori is originally a term used in reference to foods prepared for Sechinichi or Sekku (seasonal festivals). Specifically, it refers to festival foods (menus) prepared by New Year's Eve for the New Year's holidays. Osechi-ryori is also called simply Osechi.
Foods for the New Year's holidays

Summary

Nowadays, osechi dishes are foods for the New Year's holidays, which can last a couple of days in the refrigerator or at a cool room temperature. This reflects the belief that "the kitchen must be kept quiet during New Year's holidays to invite gods." It is also said that another purpose of the custom is to allow women to rest during the New Year's holidays by means of the simmered, preserved foods. Because the purpose is to keep the kitchen quiet and allow women to rest, osechi dishes don't necessarily have to be hand-made. Accordingly, osechi dishes are now sometimes purchased at department stores or restaurants.

Originally, osechi dishes were eaten on New Year's Eve to invite the new year. Today, however, they're commonly eaten on and after New Year's Day in nearly every region of Japan. However, in some parts of Japan, such as Hokkaido, osechi dishes are still eaten on New Year's Eve, following the old custom.

History

Since ancient times, New Year's Day (January 1) has been celebrated as an important seasonal festival to bring back the god of paddy fields, who had returned to his mountain. Once upon a time, when Emperor NINTOKU went up to the tower of his palace on New Year's Day, he noticed that there was no smoke rising up from the kitchen chimneys of houses because of shortage of foods due to a bad harvest. He was shocked by the scene and said, "I will not levy taxes in the year when smoke does not rise up from the kitchen chimneys of houses on New Year's Day." Accordingly, people decided not to cook on New Year's Day in order to avoid taxes. It is said that Emperor NINTOKU did not revoke the tax exemption policy even though he couldn't repair his palace due to the shortage of income.

Nowadays, New Year's Day is the only seasonal festival that is commonly celebrated in Japan. Therefore, today's osechi-ryori only refers to the foods for New Year's Day that are prepared by New Year's Eve (foods for the New Year's holidays).

Origin

Osechi was originally a term used in reference to Sechinichi or Sekku (seasonal festivals) corresponding to special occasions on the calendar, the change of seasons, etc., which were imported from the Chinese continent. For the seasonal events, festival foods were prepared. The festival foods prepared for these occasions were called osechi-ryori.

Contents

The basic osechi-ryori consists of Otoso, Iwaizakana-sanshu (Mitsu-zakana), Zoni and Nishime. The contents of the mitsu-zakana, the zoni and the nishime vary according to the region.

Out of these, the mitsu-zakana and nishime are served in nests of lacquered boxes. The term "osechi-ryori" commonly refers only to the foods packed in a nest of lacquered boxes instead of referring to the entire menu. The style of packing foods in nests of lacquered boxes represents multilayered happiness (for the same reason, it is said that one should ask for a refill when eating zoni).

Many osechi dishes can last a couple of days in the refrigerator or at a cool room temperature because they've been heated, dried, vinegared or heavily flavored. This is because the kitchen isn't used during the New Year's holidays due to a custom established in the late Heian period, in which the use of fire is avoided in the kitchen during the New Year's holidays so as not to anger Kojin, the god of fire. In fact, another purpose of the custom is to allow busy women to rest during the New Year's holidays.

Nowadays, thanks to advancements in food preservation technology, various foods, such as perishables and costly delicacies, are also frequently served in nests of lacquered boxes.

Furthermore, people increasingly purchase ready-made packed osechi dishes at grocery stores and department stores, or from Internet sites, instead of preparing them at home. Additionally, according to a survey conducted on 113 households in the metropolitan area, it seems that, starting around 2004, there have been people who don't eat osechi dishes during the New Year's holidays.

Iwaizakana-sanshu

The term "iwaizakana-sanshu" is used in reference to three kinds of indispensable osechi dishes for the celebration of New Year's Day. When mochi (rice cake) is available in addition to the iwaizakana, one can celebrate New Year's Day. Conversely, without the iwaizakana, even with other expensive foods, the festive table for celebrating New Year's Day cannot be completed. Iwaizakana-sanshu is also called Mitsu-zakana.

Kanto style (eastern style)

Tazukuri

Tazukuri is a term used in reference to Gomame (small sardines) that have been dried and then finished in a sweet sauce of sugar, mirin, soy sauce and sake. Tazukuri has been eaten to pray for a good harvest because sardines were employed as a useful fertilizer for plowed lands.

Kazunoko (herring roe)

Kazunoko has traditionally been eaten to pray for the prosperity of descendants, because the number of roe is large.

Kuromame (simmered black beans)

Kuromame has been eaten to encourage the ability to work hard and lead a healthy life ("mame" in Japanese means hard-working and good health), because it was said that its black color has the effect of charming evil spirits.

Kansai style (western style)

Tataki-gobo (burdock roots that have been pounded and garnished with a sesame dressing)

Tataki-gobo has been eaten to pray for a good harvest because its shape and color are similar to those of a black, auspicious bird that is said to come flying down when a good harvest is expected.

Kazunoko (herring roe)

As in the kanto style, kazunoko has been eaten to pray for the prosperity of descendants because the number of roe is large.

Kuromame (simmered black beans)

As in the kanto style, kuromame has been eaten to encourage the ability to work hard and lead a healthy life, because it was said that its black color had the effect of charming evil spirits.

Kuchitori (side dishes)

Kohaku-kamaboko (red-and-white fish cake)

Kohaku-kamaboko has been eaten because red and white are colors representing happiness. It originated from the offering to the gods, which consisted of red rice and white rice.

Date-maki (sweet egg omelet made from eggs, hanpen (marshmallow-like fish cake) and sugar)

The term "date" is used to express gorgeousness; it is said that this term originated from Masamune DATE's attention-getting style, etc. Date-maki is indispensable because of its gorgeous appearance. Furthermore, date-maki has been eaten to pray for success in the academic field because of its appearance, which is similar to that of a rolled book. According to the kansai style, a plain rolled omelet is often served instead of date-maki.

Kuri-kinton (mashed sweet potatoes with sweet chestnuts)

The term "kinton" is used in reference to a gold-colored dumpling (in some regions it may mean a golden mattress). Kuri-kinton is indispensable because it looks like a gold ingot due to its colorful, gorgeous appearance.

Konbu-maki (boiled herring wrapped with seaweed)

Konbu-maki has been eaten to pray for happiness because of its similarity in pronunciation to the word "yorokobu (happiness)."

Otafuku-mame (literally, many-happiness beans)

Otafuku-mame has traditionally been eaten to pray for happiness, because of its name.

Sunomono (vinegared dishes)

Kohaku-namasu (literally, red-and-white salad)

It's a salad whose color arrangement is similar to that of a ceremonial red-and-white paper string.

Kabu-no-sunomono (vinegared turnip)

Chorogi

Chorogi is a term used to refer to plant roots dyed with perilla vinegar. Chorogi is often served with kuromame in the same bowl.

Subasu

Subasu is a term used in reference to vinegared lotus roots.

Yakimono (roasted dishes)

Buri-no-yakimono (roasted yellowtail)

Buri-no-yakimono has been eaten to pray for promotion because yellowtail is a Shusseuo (fish that promotes life as it grows larger).

Tai-no-yakimono (roasted porgy)

Porgies have been traditionally offered to gods. It is similar in pronunciation to the word "medetai (happiness)."

Ebi-no-yakimono (roasted lobster)

Ebi-no-yakimono has been eaten to pray for a long life because the shape of a lobster with its long antennas and curved waist is similar to that of an aged person. While lobsters have been mainly used, prawns are coming into use for economical reasons.

Unagi-no-yakimono (roasted eel)

Unagi-no-yakimono has been eaten to pray for promotion because eels will, no matter how steep the rapids are or how little water there is, manage to swim further upstream. Eel has recently come into use as an osechi dish.

Nishime (braised vegetables)

Kuwai (arrowhead)

Kuwai has been eaten to pray for promotion because it powerfully sends forth large shoots.

Renkon (lotus root)

Renkon has been eaten to pray for a life without obstacles. because lotus roots have many through-holes which allow one to see through to the other side without obstacles.

Gobo (burdock root)

Satoimo (taro)

Satoimo has been eaten to pray for the prosperity of descendants because a parent taro is commonly accompanied by many small, child taros.

Yatsugashira (yams)

Yatsugashira has been eaten to pray for the prosperity of descendants because a parent yam is commonly accompanied by many small, child yams. Additionally, the term "yatsugashira" literally means "eight heads," and eight is a lucky number in Japan.

Tokobushi (small abalone)

Tokobushi has traditionally been offered to gods at seasonal festivals. It is also called Fukudame (literally, the accumulation of happiness). Because of its name, it has been eaten to pray for happiness.

Konbu (kelp)

Juzume (packing)

While traditional osechi dishes have been packed in five-layer lacquered boxes, recently simplified three-layer lacquered boxes have come into use. The style of packing foods in nests of lacquered boxes represents multilayer happiness (for the same reason, it is said that one should ask for a refill when eating zoni).

The lacquered boxes are called ichi-no-ju (the first box), ni-no-ju (the second box), san-no-ju (the third box), yo (与) -no-ju (the fourth box) and go-no-ju (the fifth box), from the top. The yo (与) -no-ju (the fourth box) is written as "与" instead of "四," because the pronunciation of "四" is the same as that of "死 (death)."
Although the order may vary depending on the region or the house, osechi dishes are commonly packed as follows:
The four-box style is sometimes said to be formal. However, the four-box style is a simplified variation of the five-box style, from which the fifth box (the stand-by box) is omitted.

Ichi-no-ju (the first box)

Iwaizakana

Ni-no-ju (the second box)

Sunomono and Kuchitori

San-no-ju (the third box)

Yakimono

Yo-no-ju (the fourth box)

Nimono

Go-no-ju (the fifth box)

Stand-by (empty)

The fact that the fifth box is empty means it isn't full (not the best); consequently, there is room left for future expansion and further prosperity.

Ichi-no-ju (the first box)

Iwaizakana and Kuchitori

Ni-no-ju (the second box)

Yakimono and Sunomono

San-no-ju (the third box)

Nimono