Of osechi, ozōni and okayu: traditional New Year foods

Mina-san, konnichiwa! With Christmas, New Year and the Lunar New Year all back-to-back within barely more than a month, it feels like all the eating and drinking has never really stopped! Since it is now the Lunar New Year, I believe that all of you have been feasting on treats like pineapple tarts, bak kwa, yusheng and what not. Just as how we have our special foods for the Lunar New Year, the Japanese also have their own delicacies for when they celebrate the New Year – but do you know what they are like?

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the year-end period, the Japanese people find time to prepare or buy osechi, traditional foods to be eaten over the first few days of the New Year. Traditionally, those days were the only time in the year the stove fire was extinguished, and no cooking was done. This meant that foods had to be heavily seasoned to make sure they would keep, especially since there were no refrigerators in the past. 

 Osechi: The many small dishes that make it up

With the advent of modern technology, though, it means that osechi does not have to be as strongly flavoured as before, a boon in today’s environment where people are more health-conscious and worried about the effects of excessive salt and sugar consumption!

Boiling sweet potatoes and making kuromame, sweet-salty black soybeans, at the same time.

Just like for some of the things we eat during the Lunar New Year, many of the osechi dishes signify something special! Here are a few examples:

kuri kinton (sweet chestnuts in a puree of mashed sweet potato) is eaten because kinton can also mean “chunks of gold”, thereby implying riches and wealth in the new year.

kazunoko (herring roe) represents wishes for many children.

tazukuri (little sardines with a sticky sweet-salty glaze) signify a bountiful harvest for the year, as the sardines were used to fertilize fields in the past

The osechi I made this year. Everything apart from the kōhaku kamaboko, pink and white fishcake, was handmade! Apart from the standard dishes like kinton, kuromame and nishime (simmered vegetables), I also made things like roast pork and oysters in olive oil.

Together with the trend towards less heavily-flavoured dishes, osechi produced by departmental stores and famed restaurants have also started including more Western items like roast beef and lobster. It could be due to palates becoming more global, or in an attempt to make osechi look more colourful and appetizing, just as with Valentine’s Day chocolates, the osechi war shows no sign of abating!

 Mochi and ozōni: ways to enjoy rice cakes 

Another must-have food item for the Japanese New Year is mochi, or Japanese rice cakes. While most of you may be familiar with mochi in the form of daifuku, thin-skinned mochi balls enveloping a sweet filling of bean paste, the mochi that takes center stage during the Japanese New Year is kiri-mochi, mochi that has been cut into blocks and left to dry. The resulting mochi is by itself hard and tasteless, but upon toasting it puffs up and reveals a gooey, chewy interior when one bites into it.

Due to its blandness, mochi can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, both sweet and savoury. Two popular ways are isobe mochi, with the toasted mochi being drizzled with soy sauce before being wrapped in seaweed; or abekawa mochi, with the toasted mochi being topped with a mix of kinako (soybean flour) and sugar.

Isobe mochi, my favourite way of having mochi! These deceptively small blocks are surprisingly filling.

Mochi is not only eaten in these ways, though – it is perhaps most commonly eaten in ozōni, a soup that features various ingredients and mochi. What is most fascinating about ozōni is that every region in Japan has its own variant. Those made in the Greater Tokyo region commonly feature a clear, soy-sauce flavoured broth, chicken and greens, while the Kyoto variant has a white miso-based broth. 

In addition, the ozōni in Kagawa features mochi stuffed with bean paste in a white miso broth, while that in Tottori uses a red bean soup in place of a savoury broth. With so many different types of ozōni, it is no wonder that there are specialized restaurants selling only ozōni, allowing people to enjoy this dish any time of the year!

Ozōni I made this year in the Greater Tokyo style, making use of some osechi leftovers……

 Okayu: something light for the stomach

While the Lunar New Year continues for fifteen days, the Japanese New Year is much shorter, with shimenawa and kadomatsu, traditional New Year decorations, being removed after the seventh day. On the same day, there is a particular dish eaten by the Japanese called nanakusa-gayu, literally “seven greens porridge”. It is a simple dish of porridge with seven types of greens, including turnip and daikon. 

The idea is that after many days of feasting and drinking, one’s innards are tired, and hence something light and healthy is needed to give the organs a break and to reset one’s body. While traditionally the greens and porridge were prepared separately and mixed together at the end right before serving, nowadays freeze-dried sachets of nanakusa can be purchased and mixed with porridge to create instant nanakusa-gayu. These sachets can be found at major Japanese supermarkets like Meidi-ya in Singapore, so for those who are curious about how it tastes like, do head over and purchase a pack or two to try!

A bowl of nanakusa-gayu made using a freeze-dried pack. A pack of porridge is also included – all you have to do is reheat the porridge, and stir in the freeze-dried greens!

Food is an important part of any culture. Just like how it plays a central role in the Lunar New Year, traditional foods like osechi and ozōni are essential items in the Japanese New Year, with families gathering to partake in these dishes and rekindle ties with each other. Give these foods a try next time, and learn a little more about Japanese culture and traditions! 

About the author

Loves cats, music, and alcohol. Dedicated to spreading the good word of Japanese and Japanese culture! 猫と音楽とお酒が大好きです。日本語と日本文化についていろいろ教えちゃいます!