A taste of what’s to come

The cultural significance of Osechi Ryori in Japanese New Year celebrations

By Juliet Rabbitte

When I was asked to write about Japanese food I was overwhelmed with all the meals I wanted to talk about – do I talk about the classics like sushi, or maybe my Mum’s curry that I try to recreate at Uni at least once a term but can’t ever seem to do justice to, or maybe some obscure regional dishes? But with this article being for around the new year, I would be doing a disservice to the diverse cuisine of Japan if I did not mention the importance of Osechi-Ryori, the traditional Japanese meal eaten at New Year.

My Mum always says that New Year’s or ‘O-Shogatsu’ was the Japanese equivalent of Christmas Day, especially when I asked if I could go out with my friends for New Year’s Eve and she would warn me that I couldn’t be too hungover for our family dinner the next day.

Osechi is a meal eaten on New Year’s Day, usually presented in a tiered, black and red lacquer bento box. It includes an assortment of all kinds of food, each associated with specific meanings of hopes for the New Year. Traditionally, there was supposed to be enough food to last for 3 days to give the women a break from cooking, so the food had to be long lasting. This leads to significant use of natural preservatives such as sugar and soy sauce in the dishes to increase the stability of the food. Each dish has an individual meaning and represents a specific wish for the new year, but the overarching theme is that of long life and prosperity.

The overarching theme is that of long life and prosperity

There are so many different additions that usually vary by region or household but here’s just a few of my favourites that I look forward to every year:

Toshikoshi Soba

Toshikoshi Soba is buckwheat noodle soup, and is actually eaten on New Year’s Eve. It symbolises cutting off the old year and leaving the bad luck in that year so as to not bring it into the new year with you. The thinness and long length of the noodles represent a long and healthy life.

Datemaki

Datemaki is a sweet egg roll. Definitely my favourite dish, it’s almost like a cake. The scroll-like shape is meant to resemble books and scrolls, representing the wish for academic success.

Kuro-Mame

Kuro-Mame are black soybeans which are simmered in sugar. ‘Mame’ means ‘bean’ in Japanese and sounds like ‘mamemameshii’ which means to work diligently and earnestly, symbolising success at work.

Ebi

Ebi is Japanese for shrimp and their curved backs are supposed to represent a long life as they mirror the curved-over backs of the elderly.


Kuri Kinton

Kuri Kinton is mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, it is a sweet, yellow dish. ‘Kin’ means gold and combined with the yellow colour of the food symbolises gold and the promise of riches.

Mochi

Mochi is a Japanese rice cake with a sticky texture and stretches out, representing long life and health. Mochi used to be precious and traditionally was only used for offerings to the gods wishing for a long life and prosperity. This tradition is from the Heian period (794-1185) and originates with the Japanese Royal family of that era.

Kazunoko

Kazunoko is herring roe, and represents the wish to have lots of kids as herrings are synonymous with having many eggs in Japan.

Sake

Japanese sake is drunk at the beginning of the meal and the head of the house makes a toast to celebrate the New Year. The warm sake cleanses the palate and symbolises cleansing bad luck from throughout the house.

In the modern day, Osechi-Ryori has undergone many iterations and while the dishes I explained above are very traditional, there are also restaurants where you can pre-order many different kinds of Osechi including Chinese, Italian or French themed sets, or you can even get individually portioned sets for one person at convenience stores. Japan may have a traditional reputation but it’s also quick to evolve new trends. Cultures are always changing to accommodate and reflect the people and food is a big part of that. Osechi adapts to fit the merging of different households and is individual to each person, creating new traditions with each generation. In short, Osechi-Ryori can be seen as a great example of the current reflection of Japan.

The significance of dumplings for Chinese New Year

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In different regions of China, there are variations in cuisine, but when the Spring Festival arrives, one food is a must on every family’s table – dumplings. The origin legend of dumplings dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty, where a renowned physician named Zhang Zhongjing invented a medicine to treat prevalent diseases. However, due to its limited administration method, the medicine’s effectiveness was compromised. Zhang Zhongjing then conceived the idea of wrapping the medicine in dough for easy consumption. This method successfully cured the ailments of the people. To commemorate him, on New Year’s Eve, people would shape their food into what we now know as “dumplings.”

The tradition of making dumplings gradually spread throughout the country, and different regions developed distinctive styles of dumpling fillings. In the south, dumplings typically feature fresh fillings, such as pork and shrimp, while in the north, dumplings are known for their hearty meaty fillings.

Dumplings themselves carry two layers of special symbolism at the dinner table. When making dumplings, it is customary to add cold water three times during the process. This not only enhances the dough’s elasticity but also involves the dumplings making three rotations during this step. The dumpling’s shape resembles ancient ingots, so the three rotation of dumplings symbolizing prosperity in wealth for the coming year. This represents the first layer of meaning. However, for me, dumplings hold a second layer of significance: family reunion. While my family doesn’t typically eat dumplings in our daily lives, regardless of where I am in the world, the appearance of dumplings reminds me that even if we can’t be together at the moment, I know there is always a harbour allowing me to cast aside my armor to reveal my vulnerability. We may not always reunite over dumplings, but our hearts are forever connected.

Photography by: Juliet Rabbitte

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