The First Meal of the Year: Osechi Ryori (おせち料理)

Good morning 2021, it’s finally a new year!

To start off on the right foot, I was excited to follow Japanese tradition and eat Osechi Ryori for the first meal of the year. This fare consists of colorful dishes arranged in separate compartments of a black box called jubako. In old times, cooking was not allowed during the first three days of the year, so meals had to be prepared beforehand. To create dishes that would last, different preservation methods were used (pickling, curing, or simmering in a mix of soy sauce and sake). Eaten at room temperature, these dishes are not heralded for their delicious taste, but rather the symbolic meaning that each serving holds.

The exact contents of an Osechi meal vary widely depending on region and the preference of each cook, so no two servings are alike. My host mom created our Osechi meal following the teachings of her mother with some twists of her own.

Happy New Year! Celebrating in traditional Japanese style

On the left is a filled jubako (black box). The first compartment houses slices of cured ham along with veggies. Because the other dishes in this Osechi are on the sweet side, the salty ham is included to help cut through the sugars. The serving to the right holds a candied chestnut and sweetened black beans. The round, golden chestnut signifies wealth, while the black beans or kuromame, represent hard work and diligence.

Below these beans is datemaki. Made out of white fish paste and sweetened eggs mixed and rolled together, this spongy course also calls for good wealth and strong academics for the new year. The final compartment is filled with sweetened tofu, soy beans, and pickled veggies. The juicy tofu draws a connection to the vegetarian cuisine Japanese monks consume, while the soybeans signify more good health.

Datemaki- made from fish paste and eggs

Next we have New Year’s soup, or ozoni. Made of a light broth filled with veggies, chicken, and grilled mochi, this is considered one of the most auspicious dishes of the New Year. Most notably, the chewy stretchiness of the mochi symbolizes tenacity, and resilience. A word of caution however, as a significant number of older people have died of choking while eating this chewy mochi.

Ozoni soup with mochi
Ozoni soup with mochi, veggies, and chicken

And finally, a bit of Japanese sake is provided to finish off the meal and purify the body.

While there are still many who make this traditional kind of meal, it is becoming more common to purchase Osechi due to the immense amount of time and preparation it requires. Where my Osechi experience included one layer of food, for larger families where Osechi is eaten over the course of numerous days, multiple jubako are filled and stacked together. For those looking to purchase this kind of Osechi, pre-ordering is required and will range from a hundred to thousands of dollars.

It was a joy to learn so much throughout such an important meal, and I’m hopeful that all the good health, wealth, and strong academic blessings I ate will carry me through this next year!

Wondering what food you traditionally eat on New Year’s Eve? Read this blog post!

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