Celebrating the New Year with Traditional Japanese Food

January 11, 2017

Osechi Ryori (お節料理) are special Japanese food prepared for New Year’s Day. In the cover photo (New Year’s food at the Consul General’s party) and the photo below (one of the dishes at the Oikawa family’s New Year’s dinner) you can see renkon (lotus root), kuromame (sweet black beans), tazukuri (dried anchovies), nishime (a type of nimono), konbu (type of seaweed), kinpira gobo (burdock root with carrots), nimono (simmered vegetable stew), red and white kamaboko (fish cake), ebi (prawns), kazunoko (herring roe), nisiki tamago (egg roulade), zoni (mochi in clear broth).  The food represents wishes for the New Year, such as good health, happiness, abundance, and a long life.

My grandmother and my mom would prepare for days before January 1st. My mom has special dishes for all the food we serve on New Year’s Day. The food must taste good, and the presentation is also very important in Japanese cuisine.

Osechi Ryori おせち料理

Osechi Ryori おせち料理

I talk about Japanese New Year’s food traditions in my latest GVJCCA President’s message:

Happy New Year! Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

I am a yonsei, fourth generation Japanese Canadian, and my family’s Christmas dinner is similar to most Canadians celebrating Christmas. The turkey roasting in the oven for hours. Our feast includes turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and salads for supper. New Year’s Day is all about Japanese food and traditions my grandmother taught us. It actually starts on New Year’s Eve when we have to eat noodles and soup. My obaachan used to make her own noodles, but I don’t have the time or proficiency to pull that off, yet.

When people ask me why we eat noodles I would say for good luck and long life, but I don’t remember the details and my grandmother is gone so I can’t ask her. I googled the origins of the tradition and found a fascinating history.

The Japanese tradition of eating noodles probably originated in the 13th or 14thcentury when a temple or wealthy ruler would treat the people to noodles on the last day of the year. The tradition of eating Toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve became widely established during the 17th to 19th century (Edo period 1603-1868). Apparently the merchants in Edo (present-day Tokyo) developed many customs for good fortune. During this time, soba noodles (made from buckwheat grain) were the preferred noodle in the north from the Kanto region (which includes Tokyo) and udon noodles were more popular in Kyoto. Today, most of Japan uses soba noodles for this ritual although there are variations in different areas and families. Our family likes fishcake, green onion, nori, and a fried egg with our noodles.

Toshikoshi refers to the year crossing, jumping from the old year to the new one. Some say the long noodle symbolizes the year crossing. What may have appealed to the Edo merchants is that fine soba flour was once used by Japanese goldsmiths to gather up leftover gold dust and the connection to gold would be an ideal symbol of good fortune. Also, soba noodles are easily cut so they represent letting go of the old year’s troubles and regrets. Soba is also seen by some as symbolizing strength and resiliency because of the nature of the buckwheat plants to be able to bounce back after being hit by wind and rain. There are also some who attribute the long noodles to a long life.

For me, the food traditions are a way to remember my ancestors and my family. I remember watching my grandmother roll out the dough with a long wooden dowel as she made her noodles. I could smell the broth bubbling on the stove. Eating the delicious noodles and soup made me feel a deep comfort, my grandmother’s love, and that all is right in the world. I think it’s a good way to start the new year.

Food is an important way for our families to share our culture and our personal stories. It’s also a delicious way to connect with other individuals and communities. What are your memories of your obaachan’s (grandmother’s) or other family member’s contributions to your family meals?

Tai (sea bream)

Tai (sea bream)

Lorene with Consul General Asako Okai  at New Year's Celebration. Kadomatsu is a pair of traditional Japanese New Year's arrangements placed in front of homes.

Lorene with Consul General Asako Okai at New Year’s Celebration. Kadomatsu is a pair of traditional Japanese New Year’s arrangements placed in front of homes.

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