Enjoying and Sharing New Year's Special Foods
The year is drawing to a close, everyone is running around trying to get all the loose ends (clean the house, pay off your debts, etc. etc.!) neatly tied up before they can finally relax for a few days and enjoy their New Year's osechi ryori. In Japan, the original meaning of osechi ryori was "seasonal festive occasion food," and it was enjoyed on many occasions throughout the year. The current use of the term, however, has been narrowed to refer to the specially prepared and artfully arranged foods enjoyed on what is considered to be the most important of major holidays, New Year's holiday, a span of about 3 to 5 days. Traditionally held in special tiered lacquered boxes dedicated for the New Year's holidays, osechi ryori was both an offering to the divine spirits which were said to visit households at this time of year, and also a symbol of the wish for happiness and prosperity in the coming year. Learning about the often intricately prepared foods and what they represent can make preparing and assembling your New Year's feast even more fun!
Meanings Behind the Food
Each dish carries an auspicious meaning, and the names of many often have pronunciation that lends itself to two or more interpretations.
This tasty steamed fish paste (kamaboko) comes in two colors: red, or ko-, (in reality more pink than red), which stands for felicity, and white, or -haku, which represents sacredness. The two colors together also represent the rising sun and Japan's flag. No New Year's feast would be complete without this! Red and white is a common recurring theme that we can see in other New Year's decorations, both edible and ornamental.
A thick omelet made of egg yolks and fish paste is rolled into a spiral shape. The scrolled appearance refers to enhancing one's academic and cultural education (in the past literary and art works were often written on scrolled paper).
Another egg dish, this is a beautiful bi-colored egg roulade symbolizing prosperity, with the yellow yolks symbolizing gold, and the egg whites symbolizing silver. Nishiki is a play on words, as the kanji it is written with can be pronounced nishoku, or bi-colored.
It's not hard to guess what this golden sweet treat represents! This mixture of mashed Japanese sweet potatoes and chunks of candied chestnuts is eaten with hopes for a prosperous new year. Kuri, is both the pronunciation for the kanji "chestnut" and "repeat," and kin- reads as "gold." -ton may also have originally stood for "group."
This dish of sweet and savory simmered black (kuro-) soybeans (-mame) symbolizes diligence and hard work, and the health of the family unit. It is said that the black color wards off any evil spirits that might be lurking in the new year. Both "soybeans" and "to be diligent" have the same pronunciation.
Konbu (kelp) sounds a lot like "yorokobu," a verb meaning to be joyful. Small braised rolls (maki refers to the rolled shape) tied with dried gourd, are indispensable at celebratory functions such engagement parties, weddings, and the like. Full of fiber and minerals, this dish is also quite the health food!
Kazu means number, and ko means children, and this herring roe, a large firm cluster of tasty pin-head sized eggs, is emblematic of the wish for many children, and the furthering of the family line.
The long whiskers and curved back of these prawns represent old age, and they are symbolic of healthy longevity. Their red and white coloring and large size often make them a gorgeous stand-out among the other foods.
The taro root grows by baby buds sprouting off the parent plant, and this represents a wish for a fertile future.
Growing long and deep into the earth, the burdock root symbolizes both the flourishing and stability of the family in the coming year.
A clear view of the future is what is symbolized by the many-holed lotus root.
Arrangement and Presentation
The traditional method for presenting and storing osechi ryori is the jubako, a lacquered box with a top lid, which may have four to five tiers, though nowadays two to three is more common. The boxes, chock-a-block with beautifully arranged goodies, are presented stacked, then one by one the tiers are placed on the table, revealing the treasures inside. After mealtimes (osechi ryori is traditionally eaten for several days during the New Year's holiday), all the tiers are neatly stacked together and the lid replaced until the next meal! The stacking of the layers, "kasaneru" also embodies the meaning of layering or stacking happiness upon happiness, a thought surely not far from your mind as you are enjoying your meal!
Generally, the top tier, ichi-no-ju, contains appetizers; the second tier from the top, ni-no-ju, holds vinegared dishes, roasted or grilled items, and skewers of meat and fish; the third, san-no-ju, contains braised or stewed food. But there are as many varieties of dishes, ways of arranging and ways of presenting as there are prefectures in Japan! And each household has their own special style as well, meaning that there are no hard and fast rules that must be obeyed. Feel free to arrange things as you wish—with or without a jubako!
Here are a few examples of how you might want to display your own version of New Year's osechi ryori!
Japanese Style Platter Arrangement
Seven dishes (perhaps representative of the seven deities called Seven Gods of Fortune or Shichi Fukujin that come down from mountain peaks every New Year's holiday?) made up of kohaku kamaboko, datemaki, kuromame, nishiki tamago, kuri kinton, konbu maki, and tazukuri (small anchovies coated with a sweet caramelized soy sauce) are artfully arranged on a Japanese style lacquered platter lined with decorative leaves. Using small dishes or sake cups for the kuromame and kuri kinton makes it easy to nestle them neatly among the other items. Putting Japanese paper or colored folding paper under the dishes also brings a festive tone to the platter. Remember not to cram everything all together; leaving some space between the items helps the food to set off the platter, and vice-versa!
Western Style Platter Arrangement
In the center is a clear glass or crystal container holding the kuromame, and the seven dishes mentioned in the Japanese Style Platter Arrangement are arranged around that, taking care not to have similar colors next to each other for optimal visual enjoyment. Use some herbs or leafy greens to separate sections for a fresh and modern finishing touch. How about decoratively piping the mashed portion of the kuri kinton so it looks like the famous Mont Blanc or its namesake pastry?
Individual Serving Plates
Using individual plates with marked divisions, carefully think of the color scheme and attractively plate single portions of kamaboko, datemaki, kuri kinton, kuromame and tazukuri. Make sure that the portions are not too close to each others so the individual flavors don't run together. Don't the skewered kuromame on the pine needles decorated with some kuri kinton look adorable? Even using your everyday dishes, by artistically placing a bit of this and a bit of that, you'll see how festive looking your table will be!
Whether you chose to enjoy osechi ryori in the traditional jubako, family style platters or individual plates, Marukai has all the ingredients and accoutrements you'll need, including delectable ready-made dishes, mochi, sake, special celebratory chopsticks, otoshidama gift envelopes, and more! Traditional or contemporary, elaborate or casual, osechi ryori is always delightful and delicious with friends and family!
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