From simple soba noodles to bento boxes full of luck, the Japanese New Year is a holiday of food and family!
Celebrating the New Year in Japan
Around the world, short days and cold weather provide the perfect background for celebrations and get-togethers, and for the people of Japan, celebrating the new year is one of the most important events of the year. It’s a time to go home, and a time for families to gather together, which inevitably means that it’s also a time for special traditions to blossom – especially when it comes to food. From the last meal of soba on New Year’s Eve to the first bites of “osechi ryori” in the new year, Japanese New Year’s food traditions are full of symbolism and meaning, and you might just want to try them for yourself!
Soba to Finish Out the Year
The history of soba noodles goes back to Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), an era of samurai and a mostly closed Japan, when soba (蕎麦, literally buckwheat) became popular for its flavor and nutritional value. Since those days, soba noodles have not only become a staple in everyday Japanese cuisine*, but they’ve become the standard meal for the last day of the year, when the dish is called “toshikoshi soba” (年越しそば, “year-crossing” soba). The important symbolism of this last meal of the year comes from the way that soba is prepared, because soba noodles are sliced instead of being stretch, and the dough’s low elasticity means that each noodle is cut away in a satisfying slice – what you might call a clean break. Cutting each soba noodle represents cutting away the ties that hold you to the previous year and any bad still clinging to you, so you can start the year fresh and unburdened!
*Especially in the north where buckwheat is a major crop and the tiny white soba flowers become a tourist attraction as well.
Ozoni for a Samurai Start
These days, ozoni (お雑煮) is a soup that comes with savory mochi and add-ins of all kinds, eaten on the first day of the year by just about everyone, but it started out as samurai food for warriors on the battlefield. These fighters would throw whatever they had together and boil it up for a bite to eat while out battling with rival clans, leading to the dish’s name (literally “mixed boil”) and the lack of one specific recipe. Ozoni varies wildly from region to region in Japan, and while chewy mochi and winter vegetables tend to be standard, Tokyoites add chicken to the ingredient list before tossing it in a simple dashi broth, while the people of Kyoto tend to skip the chicken and instead add a good dollop of white miso to make it a rich soup. The dish went from samurai fare to New Year’s specialty towards the end of Japan’s Muromachi period (1336–1573), when New Year’s ceremonies included offering ozoni to the gods, but these days it’s just eaten by everyday people, and is often tacked onto meals of osechi ryori.
Osechi to Bless the Year to Come
Osechi ryori isn’t just one dish – it’s a whole New Year’s food tradition, where a whole variety of old-fashioned Japanese recipes are each arranged in special glossy lacquer bento boxes called jubako (重箱) before being eaten on the first day of the year (or maybe longer, depending on how much there is) – each dish valued for its special meaning. Osechi ryori can be made at home or ordered in advance, and some families like to add modern touches to their osechi ryori selections, but there are a number of symbolic items that have become standard through the centuries. Japanese black beans (黒豆), for example, are hearty beans cooked in a sweet syrup, and they represent health and productivity for the coming year. For a good harvest, sardines (田作り, tatsukuri) have traditionally been a part of the meal, since they were once commonly used as fertilizer on Japanese farms. Herring roe (数の子, kazunoko), on the other hand, is served in solid clumps of countless fish eggs, as a symbol of the many children and descendants who will someday follow in your footsteps. One last example – shopping lovers will absolutely not want to miss the kurikinton (栗きんとん), which are little sweets made of chestnuts and yellow sweet potato, said to bring financial prosperity thanks to the golden color.
There’s evidence of people in Japan enjoying osechi ryori as far back as the Heian period (794-1185), when it was food for gods and royalty, so it’s no surprise that the stacks of jubako are often filled with more than a dozen different dishes. These opulent bento boxes are the perfect way to enjoy Japanese culture on one of the most important days of the Japanese calendar!
Have a Japanese New Year in Your Own Home!
Some of the ingredients that go into Japan’s New Year’s foods aren’t always easy to find all over the world, but you might be surprised at how many of the recipes you can replicate at home, so why not get your kitchen ready to try out these fun Japanese traditions yourself! (The Japanese recipe site Cookpad is a great place to find some easy osechi recipes.) Start with a few ingredients straight from Japan – things like high-quality cedar-barrel soy sauce, three-year aged miso, dashi specifically recommended for ozoni, and even soba noodles with their own soup base and dipping sauce. Then get cooking, and when you’re ready to plate, you can serve up your toshikoshi soba in elegant Japanese bowls, and arrange all your lucky osechi ryori dishes in a real jubako bento box, like this traditional wooden one, this sleek ceramic one, or this very modern graffitied one. (Or just use a handful of gorgeous little Japanese plates and bowls instead!) With all that preparation, you’re sure to have a lucky year ahead!
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