Traditional Japanese New Year Foods
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
Osechi Ryori, Toshikoshi Soba & Seven-Herb Rice Porridge
In our video about Japanese Christmas Traditions, we talked about Japanese Christmas foods. Basically, it didn’t amount to much more than fancy restaurant food and KFC Christmas buckets. Japanese New Year, on the other hand, is loaded with a smorgasbord of traditional dishes.
In fact, the selection of Japanese New Year Foods at department stores such as Seibu, Tobu, Isetan, or various Tokyu Food Shows was too much to experience in one holiday season. Even if eating hefty dinners for a week, I would not be able to taste it all. For now, let's focus on a few traditional Japanese New Year dishes.
But before we get to the stunning Osechi New Year dinner boxes, year-crossing noodles, and seven-herb rice porridge, lets quickly consider the Japanese New Year ritual. In particular, the family gatherings are quite different in nature from what I am used to in Norway.
If you can read Japanese, we wrote this Japanese blog post about how we celebrated new years in Norway, and how Onigunsô discovered one common thing between Japanese and Norwegian new year traditions.
Tis the Season to Be Wary (?)
Compared to Scandinavian traditions, Japanese New Year has a lot in common with Christmas. It is a time for lowering shoulders (at least for half a day or so), gathering families, celebrating the passing of one year, and the coming of another.
Just like Christmas dinner is the cornerstone of Norwegian Christmas traditions, the family dinner is a central Japanese New Year tradition. Naturally, the food is very different, not just in the sense of the different cuisines, but also in the sense of the nutritional intake and the solemnity of it all.
«In Scandinavia Christmas is a season of gluttony. It is a time to feast, drink and
forget all ideas of healthy lifestyle and global warming for a week or two.»
– Husky Loves Japan –
In Japan, we also ate big dinners, but the Japanese New Year food was rather simple and bland. It actually felt healthier than most of the things we eat on an everyday basis. It was delicious, but beautiful presentation and age-old traditions seemed to trump seasonal gluttony in Japan. Not so strange perhaps, considering the food excess that goes on in Japan the rest of the year.
Toshikoshi Soba | Year-Crossing Noodles
Toshikoshi Soba is a traditional New Year dish in Japan. It is usually served on New Year's Eve, in its simplest form: Buckwheat noodles in a hot dashi, mirin and soy sauce soup. The simplicity of the dish symbolizes an easy release from past problems and a fresh start.
In detail, the slurping of the long noodles symbolizes longevity in life. Also, soba noodles are easier to chew than other noodles. The easy breaking noodles symbolize ease of breaking free from any misfortune and hardships you might have experienced in the passing year.
Most Japanese people prefer cold soba noodles, with a hot dipping sauce on the side. The Year-Crossing noodles, however, are always served in a piping hot soup. This ties together with two Japanese New Year traditions: New Year-cleaning and Temple visits at midnight.
New Year-cleaning is just what it sounds like. It’s like spring-cleaning, but at the end of the year. The apartment I live in is small and easy to clean. So, we took the opportunity to clean the kitchen fan, the bathroom tiles, the WC air duct, and the terrace.
After these chores, some easy-to-make, light, and delicious buckwheat noodles were just perfect before getting ready to visit our local shrine at midnight. The Toshikoshi Soba noodles are quick to make and not too filling. The leftovers are a perfect snack when getting back from temples and shrines in the wee hours of the night.
Osechi-Ryori | New Year Jûbako (Box Dinners)
Osechi-Ryori are traditional Japanese New Year Dinner Boxes. They are exquisitely garnished and usually eaten on New Year's Day. The ritual of eating Osechi-Ryori began with preservation of foods in the Heian Period. At the time, cooking on the first days of the year was believed to bring bad luck.
Originally, Osechi-Ryori consisted of vegetables only. Various produce and dishes were preserved a few weeks before the end of the year, in order to keep the household fed during the New Year season. These days, Osechi-Ryori can be purchased anywhere from super-fancy department stores to 7/11.
The various small foods in the Osechi all have a particular meaning, which for the most part is meant to bring good health and fortune in the coming year. Also, Osechi-Ryori is most often served with a small soup on the side, called Ozouni.
Ozouni is very different from region to region, but it is always served with Mochi. We ate New Year Ozouni with Disney Mochi, which made the whole séance feel all the more kawaii and typically Japanese to my Scandinavian eyes.
«Forget Fugu! The most dangerous Japanese food is Mochi!»
– Husky Loves Japan –
Mochi is known to be one of the most lethal foods in Japan. The chewy texture can be extra hard to swallow, so much so that it kills a few elderly people each New Year. In fact, Mochi kills more people each year than the infamous Fugu (poisonous blowfish) which many foreigners like to try when they come to Japan.
My first experience with Osechi-Ryori was remarkably interesting. It was a unique opportunity to taste some of the most traditional Japanese foods around. The dishes I tried were, if not as tasty as they looked, very appetizing. Granted, aversion to fish and vegetables might not make Osechi an easy eat. If you like fish and greens, on the other hand, Osechi-Ryori is highly recommendable.
The tastes are simple but refined, and even though the meal was quite large, it didn’t feel all that heavy on my system. It was not unlike the feeling I get after a large meal at the local conveyor belt sushi-joint, which is to say, semi-healthy.
The fish cakes were excellent, perhaps some of the best ones I've tasted in Japan. The sweet black beans were yummy. The daikon-yuzu-salad was very refreshing, and the yellow chestnuts in sweet potato-paste were borderline addictive. In short, if you ever get the chance to celebrate Japanese New Year, don't forget to try Osechi-Ryori.
Seven-Herb Rice Porridge (Nanakusa Gayu)
Nanakusa Gayu, or Seven-Herb Rice Porridge is a traditional Japanese dish eaten on the 7th of January. The custom was originally meant to ward off evil, by eating gruel with seven spring herbs. Nowadays, the Seven-Herb Rice Porridge is considered a stomach-soothing ritual after the festive season.
Anyone who has tasted traditional Japanese breakfast porridge, or its Chinese counterpart – Congee – will recognize the taste of Nanakusa Gayu. It is not the most exciting meal, but it does offer some interesting variations of Japanese porridge, especially since local areas will add various herb combos to the gruel.
Even though the New Year feast in Japan was far from the exercise in hedonism I am used to from Scandinavia, the Seven-Herb Rice Porridge was a nice change of pace. It did what it was meant to do, which was to soothe my system. The mixture of fresh herbs and hot porridge felt very hearty on that cold Tokyo night, on the 7th of January.
Many of the herbs used in the Seven-Herb Rice Porridge are indigenous to Japan. Therefore, both the tradition and the gruel itself is kind of fascinating. It certainly offers unusual flavors to explore for foodies on the hunt for new experiences. It is very simple, but therein lies some of its allure.
The fact that it was not so special, but felt like an everyday (or rather every-year) meal, made it all the more noteworthy. Eating the Seven-Herb Rice Porridge felt like a taste of the real Japan, a taste that has remained unchanged for centuries. Now, who wouldn’t want to experience something like that?
Bento.com: Osechi - Japanese New Year's cuisine
In Hamamatsu: «Nanakusa-Gayu» - A lucky dish to eat in January
Japan Center: New Year Soba
Journal of Home Economics of Japan: Continuation of Food Culture and Intergenerational Relationships A Case of Osechi Ryori (the New Year Dishes)
Just One Cookbook: Toshikoshi Soba
La Fuji Mama: Nanakusa-Gayu (Seven-Herb Rice Soup)
Tsunagu Japan: A Guide to Osechi Ryori
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