A Deeper Look at O-Sechi (お節)- Japan`s Special New Year`s Dishes (which are served cold)
By Avi Landau
In a recent TsukuBlog article about O-Shogatsu ( お正月) the Japanese New Year Festival, I mentioned that I would like to write more about Osechi (御節), the variety of special, slow to spoil and symbolically significant dishes, packed into a box or set of stacked boxes, which are eaten over the 3-day New Year`s holiday period. I instead added a link to a site online ( wikipedia) which I said would provide adequate information in English. Later , I re-read the article that I had recommended and found it unsatisfying in terms of what I would have wanted to communicate about this most important ( along with O-Mochi- pounded rice cakes) of all Japanese festive foods . So now, after my own Osechi boxes have already been picked clean, I will try to give a fuller picture of this important custom which is so revealing in terms of traditional Japanese culture in general.
First let`s look at the origin of the term Osechi ( 御節), which an abbreviation of Osechiku (御節供), literally meaning Offerings for Days of Seasonal Change. Traditionally, besides New Year`s, five special seasonal change days (originally brought over from China) were celebrated in Japan. These are all linked to the fact that according to Chinese thought, ODD NUMBERS are auspicious. Thus we have:
O-shogatsu ( the New Year) on the first day of the first month ( 1/1)
Jinjitsu no Sekku ( 人日の節句) on the seventh day of the first month (1/7)
Joshi no Sekku ( 上巳の節句 ) on the third day of the third month ( 3/3)
Tango no Sekku ( 端午の節句) on the fifth day of the fifth month (5/5)
Shichiseki (七夕) on the seventh day of the seventh month (7/7)
and Choyo no Sekku (重陽の節句) on the 9th day of the ninth month
on which special foods were given as offerings to the gods. These Sechiku (offerings) were later eaten by the family or group that presented them.
Since the first day of the first month was, and still is, the most important of these seasonal change days, the term Osechi is now used ONLY to refer to the special dishes of New Year`s.
(the other seasonal change days ( sekku) are still recognized in Japan to varying degrees and have their OWN special dishes which have evolved over the generations. The fifth day of the fifth month is even a national holiday ( Childrens Day), while 3/3 is the popular Doll Festival ( Hina Matsuri) and 7/7 , the Tanabata star Festival. Interestingly, 9/9, the most important of the sekku for the ancient Chinese, besides New Years Day ( because nine is the largest ODD number), did not become truly popular in Japan because in the Japanese language the pronounciation of the number nine -KU-can also mean to suffer.)
Each of the separate dishes which make up what is now called Osechi ( and there can be dozens) are meant to symbolically represent ( through similarities of sound or shape etc) a good harvest, long healthy life, the success of ones descendants and conjure up other positive, auspicious images for the future.
Osechi dishes also usually include representative foods from the mountain and foods from the sea, as well as foods which are cooked in various styles( grilling,boiling, etc.), and different tastes ( sweet, sour, salty).
As with Japanese cooking in general, they also show deep consideration for healthfulness with a good balance of vegetables and protein.
The other characteristic of Osechi dishes, is that they must keep for at least three days and can be eaten as they are, that is, without heating up- because over the New Year`s holiday there was NO cooking, traditionally.
Of course, there are variations in, how many, and what dishes comprise the Osechi from family to family , so it goes without saying that their can be great regional variation.
In the Kanto Area ( around Tokyo), there are 3 dishes which are considered essential ( iwai sakana sanshu- 祝い肴三種), which are- GOMAME ( boiled and dried sardines, also called TAZUKURI), KUROMAME (黒豆)- boiled black beans, and KAZU NO KO ( 数の子)- herring eggs.
In Kansai ( around Kyoto and Osaka), the GOMAME, while probably included somewhere in the Osechi, in not considered to be one of the essential three. Instead there is TATAKI GOBO (burdock root boiled in Soy sauce) which is considered a MUST ( the other two are the same).
Traditionally these dishes are packed into a set of stacked laquered boxes, four tiers high ( though now 2 or three tiers is the norm and these are often of cheaper material). This makes for convenient serving.
Besides this utilitarian aspect, all the dishes, with their celebratory colors, packed into these small boxes makes a feast for the eyes ( some would say that it is more beautiful than delicious!) and is also symbolic of how the millions of residents of this mountainous island nation have lived cramped together, yet in harmony.
As I mentioned before there is no ONE set way of packing or stacking these boxes but here is a typical way:
The first tier ( ICHI NO JU 一の重) would have the essentials- the KUROMAME ( representing HARD WORK, DILIGENCE and health- because MAME means beans, diligence , energy and health. Their black color bearing the power to drive away bad energies), the Kazu no ko ( herring roe) which represents many descendants ( there are made up of countless eggs) and health of parents ( NISHIN, herring, is a homophone for NISHIN 二親- two parents), and the GOMAME fish, which represent a good harvest ( sardines would traditionally be used to fertilize the rice fields).Date Maki-伊達巻, an egg and fish paste roll shaped to form a swirl were said to have bee a favorite of the great daimyo Date Masamune. Their scroll shaped also can be seen as a celebration of Japan`s traditional literature, which was written and illustrated on scrolls.
The second tier ( NI NO JU 二の重), contains grilled foods and sea foods- yellowtail (BURI- which represents promotion, as this fish has different names in its different growth stages), shrimp ( whose bent back represents achieving old age), Sea bream ( TAI, which for the Japanese conjures up images of omedeTAI- celebration, etc…
The third tier ( SAN NO JU 三の重) contained vinegared dishes
and the fourth tier ( YO NO JU 与の重, please note that the character here 与 is not the standard character for the number 4 ( 四), which could also be read SHI (death), and is thus avoid. This might also be the reason that four tiers are no longer popular) contained boiled dishes including KONBUMAKI ( kelp) which represents happiness ( because the sound of KONBU is similar to that of yoroKOBU- to be glad) and lotus root, whose holes, which can be peered through, represent the looking toward the future, etc…
As I said, the above does NOT represent the rule and will find variations of this arrangement.
(And there are many more dishes that I have not mentioned yet. I will add to this list little by little and promise a more comprehensive list by next O-Shogatsu)
In Japan today many people order their osechi ( each tier costs at least 5,000 Yen and the price can go much higher than that), but many houswives make some of the dishes themselves even if they do order a set.
Each of the dishes can also be bought separately at department stores just before O-shogatsu.
Its fun to sit around the house for three days, noshing now and then out of the osechi trays ( with plenty of SAKE, of course!), enjoying not only the taste and beautiful presentation of the food but also each little tidbit`s symbolic significance.
By the way, though O-Sechi can be picked at freely at any time diring the first three days of the year, at MEAL TIMES it is always taken together with O-ZONI (お雑煮), which is a soup containing O-Mochi ( pounded rice cakes). O-zoni is interesting in that though O-Shogatsu is celebrated by just about everyone in Japan in quite a similar way- there is great variation in O-Zoni, depending on the region. There is even a saying TONARI NO ZONI (隣りの雑煮) which means that even within the same region, or neighborhood, O-Zoni varies from household to household.
I have heard that this sometimes leads to spats in the first year of marriage, since a new bride might make O-Zoni which to her husband is NOT O-Zoni. Or since a brides new family might insist that she make O-Zoni THEIR WAY.
Generally speaking,, speaking in Western Japan the Mochi in the soup is usually round, while in Eastern Japan ( including Tsukuba), it is square.
A famous O-Zoni oddity is that in Kagawa Prefecture ( on the island of Shikoku) the Mochi ( which is round) contains AN (餡)- sweet adzuki beans!.
Also, in the Kinki Region ( Nara and Kyoto), the soup is made of white miso paste,
Since in Tsukuba there are residents who have come from all over Japan, I have always thought it would be fun to have a ZONI event in which the various types of New Year`s soup would be made and served at one place.
Anyway, I hope you get a chance to taste O-Sechi and O-Zoni. Though you can buy the former, the latter is pretty much only made at home. But I think if you mention that you are interested in trying some New Year`s soup with MOCHI to a Japanese friend, that just might bring you some to try!
And one more thing!
The chopsticks used for eating O-Sechi and O-Zoni are different from normal chopsticks- they are slender at BOTH ENDS! That is because while you are eating, the God of The New Year TOSHI-GAMI SAMA is eating with you! They are also often made of willow wood, which is believed o have the power to drive away evil!
Have a great year!