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Japanese New Year Food: Our Guide to the Osechi

by Anis Taufik 27 Dec 2013
Japanese New Year Food: Our Guide to the Osechi

Photos by Amir Rashid 

Earthly Delights: In Search of the Ever Elusive Osechi

As the year steadily draws to a close, we find our calendars suddenly full and littered with numerous events, each of them begging for our utmost time and attention. Ranging from company end-of-year parties, Christmas dinners and Boxing Day lunches—not to mention the grand finale of New Year’s Eve—the festive season is marked by opportunities to catch up with family and friends. 

It probably wouldn’t be too far a stretch to claim that the holidays have also become synonymous with fantastic food and delectable drinks—what better way to rekindle old ties than breaking bread together?
 
For expatriates living on Malaysian shores, however, these merry moments are bound to feel different, and perhaps even be tinged with a sense of nostalgia; there is simply no way of replicating completely the festive feel from one’s home country. 
 
The human spirit, however, is unbreakable. Even though set worlds apart, the heart’s resolve for bringing the familiar to the foreign and so-called conventional to the otherwise exciting—in this case, recreating food linked to New Year celebrations from one’s homeland—is an endeavour of love that cannot be denied. 
 
The island nation of Japan has long been renowned for its distinct culture and traditions, and its fame for food has enraptured the attention of many an epicurean on the search for (heavenly) gastronomic delights on earth. In a quest to find out for myself how Japanese expatriates living in Malaysia strive to infuse a breathe of authenticity from the Land of the Rising Sun in their New Year cuisine, I recently spoke to Makiko Watanabe, who painstakingly crafts the intricate osechi-ryori from scratch at the end of December each year.
 
 
 
A Glimpse of the Rising Sun
 
 
Makiko opened the door with a broad smile as she welcomed me into her apartment. Pouring me a cup of hot ocha (green tea), she asked me to make allowances for her English, explaining that she had only picked up the language a couple of years ago upon her arrival in Malaysia.
 
I waved my hand and assured her that it wasn’t a problem; she spoke with exceptional fluency and her expressive gestures whilst talking made it a pleasure to chat with her. I took a sip of the tea and spied towards the dining table, where a few items had already been laid out.
 
Noticing this, Makiko quipped, “I’ve already prepared some stuff to show how I make the osechi. But I have to warn you though—mine is very basic and not that extensive.”
 
As Makiko led me to the table, she gave me a quick overview by saying, “Osechi-ryori is a special type of food that’s only eaten in Japan on New Year’s Day. It’s usually prepared in large quantities and can be eaten for the first three days of the New Year.” She pointed at the individual food items that were to be used that day and continued by informing me that osechi-ryori, often shortened to osechi, is an assortment of several dishes that are arranged neatly in specialised bento boxes called jūbako. 
 
According to Makiko, osechi typically consists of datemaki (a rolled-up omelette mixed with shrimp or fish paste), ebi (prawns), kamaboko (fish cake), kazunoko (cod herring roe), kohaku namasu (pickled, thinly sliced strands of carrot and radish), kuri kinton (sweet potatoes mashed with chestnuts), kuromame (black soy beans) and nishiki tamago (layered egg squares). She mentioned that in addition to osechi, she usually prepares ozoni—a broth with vegetables and rice cake—on New Year’s Day here too.
 
 
Makiko highlighted that traditionally, most of the dishes served in osechi could be kept fresh for several days without refrigeration, and tended to contain two distinct tastes: salty or sweet. She told me that this was intentional, partly in an attempt to preserve the food items for the first days of the New Year, and was most likely to have come about due to culinary traditions that developed before the rise of modern technology. She then shared a little known fact about ancient Japan; in the olden days, sugar was a rare commodity that tended to fetch high prices. 
 
However, as the New Year called for elaborate celebrations, households generally pulled out all the stops to ensure that nothing dampened the festive cheer. With a chuckle, Makiko stated the obvious—even back then, people liked eating something sweet to commemorate joyous events and celebrations.
 
As Makiko bustled around the kitchen, a deeper rationale behind having the osechi prepared in bulk was unveiled. In line with the New Year’s festive atmosphere, work is strictly prohibited during the celebrations in Japan. As a result, most shops (including restaurants and eateries) are closed, causing eating out options to become severely limited. Furthermore, the festive period was meant to provide people with a well-deserved break and to unwind; preparing large quantities of food in advance enabled women to let go of their usual household chores and take part in the celebrations too.
 
 
A Taste of the Far East
 
 
“Can you find the ingredients for osechi in Malaysia?”
 
“Of course!” Hardly missing a beat, Makiko went on to explain that contrary to popular belief, it was actually possible to source most of the ingredients for osechi locally in Malaysia, “You can find them anywhere. I usually buy my ingredients in supermarkets and even at wet markets.
 
It’s not too tricky to recreate the Japanese taste; the main condiments used are soy sauce and sake (rice wine)—as long as I use both, with some dashi (fish stock), I’m able to bring to life Japanese flavours.”
 
Makiko stressed that although all the ingredients were local, their flavourings were purely Japanese, with nothing too spicy or flavourful. She clarified that if the fundamental tenets of soy sauce, rice wine and fish stock were to be replaced, the taste of the final product would end up being completely different. 
 
She motioned towards the prawns, saying, “These were boiled for just between three to five minutes in a simple sauce comprising water, soy sauce, sugar and a dash of sake.” With a mischievous grin that belied her warm sense of humour, Makiko joked that she had yet to replace the prawns of her osechi with local sambal prawns—though she was sorely tempted to try it out one day!
 
Makiko lifted a bowl containing fine ribbons of carrots and radishes, “This is for the kohaku namasu. I’ve put some salt on the sliced carrots and radishes—I’ll squeeze out the water in 10 minutes. It’s a type of pickled vegetables. Later, I’ll soak it in some vinegar and sugar, with lemon juice. In Japan, we would use yuzu, a type of citrus fruit that has a very nice fragrance, but I can’t get that here, so I use lemons instead.”
 
 
Makiko scooped some glistening black beans delicately into a muffin liner, “As for the kuromame (black soy beans)…Malaysian beans are a bit small, but I’ve used them before.
 
Sometimes, if they’re in season when I go back to Japan, I’ll buy some to bring back here.” She joked that although her meal preparation time generally took only half an hour, getting the kuromame ready for osechi was a time consuming process as the beans had to be soaked for at least six hours in order to make them soft. 
 
“There’s a special meaning behind all the different dishes that go into osechi too. I admit—I’m actually only including food that I like—but in Japanese culture, we believe that eating certain types of food on New Year’s Day will bring us good luck in the future.” Makiko settled a small pot containing some prawns gently on the table and gingerly picked up one of them with chopsticks. “Some people eat prawns on New Year’s Day in Japan to live long lives—do you see the bent back? Doesn’t it remind you of an old man?”
 
 Makiko unwrapped a small, rectangular yellow-and-white cake from a Tupperware and began to slice them into slivers, “This is nishiki tamago. I made it from two hard boiled eggs. After separating the egg yolk and whites, I grated them using a strainer. Next, I spread out the whites, followed by the yolk, and steamed the cake with a little bit of salt and sugar. In Japan, white and yellow colours have good meanings, especially to attract prosperity and wealth.”
 
Drawing on the importance of colour in osechi, Makiko observed that all the items had been carefully thought out and held a significant role in the meal. She noted that items like kazunoko (cod herring roe) was a favourite on New Year’s Day as the fish eggs symbolised fertility and were thought to bring about an abundance of progeny. 
 
Remarking that kazunoko’s bright yellow hues were considered a key factor which could draw affluence, Makiko emphasised that other tones such as red and white were vital celebratory colours in Japan too. She paused for a moment and added, in an almost apologetic tone, that as kazunoko was trickier to find, she was going to use ikura (salmon roe) as a substitute instead.
 
The last item Makiko brought out was the kamaboko (fish cakes). She discussed that the fish cakes used in osechi were a slightly different kind due to its colouring of red and white, which drew inspiration from the rising sun in Japan, and that she would be using the regular white ones for the day.
 
As she placed the soft, circular pieces in into the last remaining slot in the jūbako, she commented that although both the frozen and non-frozen varieties were available in supermarkets which catered to a strong Japanese clientele in Malaysia, there was a stark price difference between the two. She confessed that she preferred the non-frozen variety, but only purchased it for special occasions.
 
 
 
 
An Oriental Culinary Sense
 
“…and that’s how you prepare osechi,” Makiko concluded as she deftly arranged the last morsels. She fingered the glossy cover of the lacquered bento box for a moment, but seemed to think against it. The box was left unconcealed, its contents juxtaposing a vivid splash of colours against the container’s dark tones.
 
A heavy silence hung in the air momentarily as the both of us admired Makiko’s handiwork—the osechi was finally complete. I was the first to break it, however, with a small clap—and a question that had been playing on my mind, “Makiko-san, why did you start making your own osechi?” I cited a few hotels and Japanese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur that catered to the tender whims of the Japanese palate over the New Year period, as an example. Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat out or order an osechi set in advance, instead of making one from scratch?
 
Makiko cast a thoughtful glance in my direction, “It’s something that I thought about too. Making an entire osechi—if done properly, with several different layers for the jūbako—can take up to two days in total. That’s a lot of time.”
 
“Well, to be honest, I don’t really have an actual reason behind preparing the osechi on my own. Osechi-ryori is a meal that we prepare bit by bit as we say goodbye to the current year and welcome in the new one. I like doing that, you see—preparing the meal little by little. When I start making the osechi and put everything into the jūbako, usually on the 30th or 31st of December, it makes me realise that the current year is truly passing and the new one is just around the corner, waiting to meld into our present. Knowing this makes me happy; I can’t help but look forward to the approaching year and everything that’ll come with it.”
 
 
 
“It’s a different experience when I buy it. If you get it immediately from the store, the experience of getting it ready, bit by bit, over time is ultimately lost.” Having been in Malaysia for five years, Makiko chose to reveal yet another surprising fact about herself: she had only started cooking properly after coming here. 
 
She elaborated that when she had been living in Japan, she had not been able to dedicate as much time for it due to her busy work schedule. Besides that, getting food in Japan was never a problem as there were plenty of convenience stores and shopping malls selling food at reasonable rates—it just wasn’t as easy to get Japanese cuisine at affordable prices in Malaysia. With a quiet smile, she acknowledged that her experimentation with cooking over the past few years had been made possible after moving to Malaysia and becoming a full-time housewife.
 
Makiko took a deep breath and uttered a single phrase in her native Japanese, “Waku waku shinagara tsukurunoga tsukidato omoimasu” which translates into, “I like cooking (the osechi) because it fills me with a complete sense of happiness.”
 
 
Makiko's Osechi-Ryori
 
Nishiki Tamago
 
 
Steamed layered egg squares, made from hard boiled eggs with the yolk and whites separated. The white symbolises silver, while the yellow stands for gold; these slices of egg cake are meant to draw in wealth and prosperity.
 
 
 
 
Kamaboko
 
 
Fish cakes used in osechi are generally red and white, the shapes and colours referring to the rising sun. Here, Makiko has used the white kamaboko that she brought back from Japan.
 
 
 
Ebi
 
 
Prawns are included in osechi as the crustacean’s curved shape—reminiscent of an old man’s back—is said to inspire longevity. In some osechi boxes, its more imperial cousin, the lobster, makes an appearance.
 
 
 
Kohaku Namasu
 
 
The delicate strands of carrot and radish, pickled in a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice and salt, add vibrance to the osechi with its shades of red and white—also an expression of peace.
 
 
 
Kuromame
 
 
In Japanese, the name for black soy beans sound similar to the word mame, which can be interpreted as diligence, devotion and health. The beans are eaten with the hopes that they bring good health and ensure physical health for the continued ability to work.
 
 
 
Ikura
 
 
In Japan, kazunoko or cod herring roe is traditionally used in osechi as the fish eggs personify fertility and the desire for children; kazu translates into ‘numbers’ while ko refers to ‘children’. As cod herring roe is a bit trickier to find in Malaysia, Makiko has opted for ikura or salmon roe.
 

 

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