Eating Tradition: Our Japanese (American) New Year’s

January 3, 2011 § 9 Comments

Osechi ryori

In Japan, New Year’s is what Christmas is to many in the U.S. and vice versa. People in Japan party on Christmas. But New Year’s in Japan is a national holiday; many businesses and agencies are closed for days at the start of the year. On New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples literally ring in the new year, sounding bells 108 times to get rid of the 108 human sins; families then eat soba noodles, symbolizing crossing into the new year and a long life ahead. Historically, women would clean house the week prior (symbolizing a fresh start) and cook a number of dishes, collectively called osechi ryori, in the days leading up to New Year’s (as it was taboo to cook on the first three days of the year).

Traditionally, the foods were cooked in sugar or vinegar or dried so that they could keep without refrigeration. While most families today don’t invest the intensive time to cook osechi, opting instead to buy beautifully-arranged food boxes from department stores or even the local 7-Eleven, the dishes and their flavors have marched forward into modern day.

Although we don’t go to Buddhist temple or clean and cook for days, the Japanese American side of my family eats together every New Year’s Day at my grandparents’. As many of us with immigrant histories do, we combine Japanese and American food traditions to create our own that we’ve maintained for years.

We eat about half of the myriad foods you’d find on the New Year’s table in Japan. We always start lunch with ozoni, a fish-based, clear broth decorated with seaweed, thinly-sliced shiitake, scallions and white fish cakes. In the soup goes the all-important mochi (sticky rice cake), which is toasted in the oven first.

Ozoni with mochi

Then we follow with a variety of small dishes: kamaboko, a fish cake sliced into half-circles; the shape and colors are reminiscent of Japan’s rising sun and are meant to symbolize festivity and celebration…

Kamaboko slices

…and kuromame, black soybeans stewed in sugar and soy sauce, symbolizing the ability to work in good health (mame, the Japanese word for “bean”, also means “working like a bee”). It’s traditional to simmer kuromame in an iron pot or add rusty nails to blacken the color of the beans. Not sure how I feel about that nail method. So perhaps I should feel glad that my grandma simply buys a can of prepared kuromame, which are mixed with konbu seaweed and kuri, sweet chestnuts, both also traditional New Year’s foods. Konbu is associated with the word yorokobu, meaning “joy”, and kuri’s golden color symbolizes prosperity.

Kuromame with konbu and kuri

To this menu, we’ve added foods that aren’t traditional for New Year’s but are ones we like to eat. There’s sashimi with wasabi and grated daikon radish, always perched daintily on my grandma’s elegantly-curved dishes and anointed with a splash of soy sauce from the glass bottle she’s had for decades.

Sashimi serving

There are also (clockwise from 2 o’clock): inari sushi (rice jacketed in fried tofu); steamed green beans with ponzu sauce; seaweed salad; steamed rice with tsukemono, or Japanese pickles; a sweet egg omelet (on New Year’s, traditionally made with fish paste, but ours are plain egg); and in the center, oden, a Japanese stew of vegetables and konnyaku, a firm jelly made from a plant called devil’s tongue.

Lunch plate

In the afternoon, we catch up on each other’s lives. Often, we play games, which is a Japanese New Year’s tradition, though the games themselves — pool, Catch Phrase — are not. It’s not unusual that someone nods off for a quick nap digesting that big lunch. And that’s a good thing, because come six o’clock, it’s time to eat again!

Dinner is decidedly more American, though it still retains a Japanese flair. We’ll eat whatever’s left from lunch, mixing seaweed salad and kamaboko with baked ham, my aunt’s decadent au gratin potatoes, and cake and ice cream for dessert. The next morning, we get to eat leftover mochi, toasted in the toaster oven or microwave, dipped in soy sauce and sugar — one of my favorite treats.

Sleepy from the good food, the stories we’ve told and heard and the laughs we’ve shared, we all go to our respective homes, happy to have eaten another year’s traditions together. Happy New Year to you too!


If you’d like to see a full list and stunning photographs of homemade, traditional osechi ryori, check out the post at the No Recipes blog here.


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