You could eat at a Japanese restaurant every day and never know exactly what osechi foods are. Osechi isn’t actually the name of one specific dish but is a term for a collection of traditional Japanese food dishes that are made and eaten to celebrate the coming of the New Year, also known as “Shogatsu.” Osechi dishes are served from January 1st through January 3rd at the turn of the New Year.
Osechi foods are traditionally served in colorful boxes made of lacquer that is known as “jubako.” The Japanese people take the celebration of the New Year very seriously and go to extensive means to make sure that the occasion is commemorated properly.
The osechi food that Japanese people make for the celebration is not at all immune from the painstaking effort and detail that they use in every aspect of the celebration. Every ingredient and dish is taken so seriously that they each have their own osechi meaning that signifies an important trait or characteristic that is desired for the upcoming New Year. As a result of this many of the osechi meanings are symbolic of happiness, good health, long life, fertility, a bountiful harvest, healthy partnerships and other positive qualities.
When and how did the tradition of eating osechi foods start?
The very earliest roots of the osechi practices can be traced to Ancient Japan, roughly between 1000 BC to 300 AD at a time known as the Yayoi period. The Yayoi period also happens to coincide with the start of rice agriculture in Japan. To celebrate their bountiful harvests, the Japanese people started to have harvest festivals that were known as “sekku.” During the sekku festivals, people would make sekku food gifts to please the gods and thank them for their successful hunts, harvests and the motherly qualities of nature. This sekku tradition of giving food gifts to the gods and each other eventually transformed into the modern osechi food gifting traditions.
What are the most common osechi foods?
Osechi foods vary somewhat based on where the people celebrating live in Japan but some common dishes permeate throughout the country. Some of the most common osechi foods include dishes such as black soybean and herring roe, or chestnuts rolled into an omelet with white or red steamed fish pastes wrapped in kelp. These dishes are constructed primarily due to the meanings that are attached to each ingredient. The color, shape, and name of each osechi dish and ingredient has a meaning and significance that is connected to the desires and wishes for the New Year.
For example, the black soybean is used in osechi dishes because the color black is thought to bring a long life and eternal youth. The Japanese name of this black soybean has a meaning that indicates a long life with excellent health and no sickness. The herring roe symbolizes wealth amongst your children and descendants. The reason for this symbolic connection is because there is a lot of roe served in each piece.
The chestnuts rolled into an omelet and mixed with steamed fish has a meaning that is indicative of getting ahead in life financially and become a rich and wealthy person. The chestnuts themselves are symbolic of a mass of gold, tying further into the wealth metaphor. The white steamed fish paste wishes for a pure mind and the red steamed fish paste aims to remove evil from the upcoming New Year. The kelp is a symbol of happiness, longevity, and congratulations. In a final tie of symbolism, the act of this meal being rolled up gives it a meaning that it is now more than food and a symbol to commemorate.
If you are interested in learning more about Shogatsu (The Japanese New Year), any osechi meanings or foods or anything else related to traditional Japanese food or Italian cuisine, please come by to Noodle Bar PHX, we can’t wait to share our passion for food and culture with you.