In Japan, January 1st is a big deal. I was lucky enough to spend it with (temporarily adopted) family in Nagano, otherwise I would have missed out on all the traditions and food. I would have been stuck alone in Tokyo somewhere, probably eating combini dinner and none the wiser.
Thankfully, I experienced a very nice Shogatsu! This is a New Year’s festival that lasts a few days, with January 1st being the most important. To me, there are two main events of Shogatsu. One is the visit to shrines and temples to pray for fortune in the new year. The other, is …what else? The food! But unlike most sloppy Thanksgivings or Christmas chow-downs, this is a little more interesting. The accent is placed not on the gorging of the holiday grub, but on the symbolism in each dish. All the components use metaphors and puns to represent prosperity, happiness, success, etc.
The meal on January 1st is oversized, but this is by design. The point is to be able to relax and continue noshing on the leftovers for the next little while, without slaving in the kitchen. This also extends the positivity of the symbols connected to the dishes. As I understood it, why eat all your good vibes in one day when they can be savored for several days?
This (prolonged) meal is called Osechi Ryori, and is presented in compartmental dishes similar to bento boxes. The names of the food are mostly play-on-words. For example, a type of seaweed called kombu is incorporated into osechi ryori because it sounds similar to the “kobu” in the verb yorokobu (to rejoice). I learned that some people have even nicknamed it yorokombu.
I sampled everything, as is customary. You wouldn’t want to eat yorokombu without kuromame – why, that might just throw off your whole year! One must eat bits of each dish to obtain well-rounded wishes for the new year. The kuromame (left-hand corner in the photo below) was one of my favorite offerings. Literally “black beans”, the play on words here is on the syllable mame, which also means health. The dark soy beans were sweet. That might sound funny to Westerners, but I have a serious sweet tooth so of course, I loved this dish! Many of the osechi ryori selections are prepared with salt and/or sugar to help preserve them for the next few days. We wouldn’t want all the cute symbolic food to go bad by Day 2. Therefore, the kuromame was something I ate every day that there was still a supply.
I’m less into salty foods, so I didn’t refill much after the first day on items like the herring roe (kazunoko, the translucent yellow thing to the right of the kuromame). Those were some seriously SALTY fish eggs! I had the yellow variety on January 1st, but noticed it was replaced with a pale pink roe (not sure what type of fish) on subsequent days. This one was way less salty, so I was able to handle it a bit better.
My other favorites were the datemaki (sweet omelette rolls, lower right corner), and the tazukuri (dried fish, top left). Also pictured at top right are Kohaku kamaboko (New Year’s Red and White fishcakes – though to be fair, that is not red, it’s pink LOL).
The symbolism of the datemaki is related to the round shape (maki, as in sushi maki), and the decorative edge. Long ago, it was believed that (somehow?) this resembled people dressed in festive and fashionable kimonos (datesha). Date+maki = Datemaki 🙂
Datemaki are said to symbolize the desire to be…fashionable. Sorry, I kinda still don’t see the comparison, but I thought it was a cute way to describe the pretty omelette rolls. I’ve seen varying accounts of the exact meaning and symbolism of the datemaki, so I’ll forgive the fashionista angle. Either way, I could have eaten a plateful at each meal.
As for the tazukuri, Westerners might find me gross for indulging in it. The whole sun-dried baby sardines were caramelized in soy sauce and sugar. The process yields something much like candy. They were slightly crunchy with a mix of sweet and salty. Aside from the little dead fish eyes looking at me, the taste was quite pleasing. The sardines used to make tazukuri were once used to fertilize rice fields. This dish therefore represents a wish for a rich harvest.
The plating above excited me just by its aesthetic. The earthy autumn color scheme was pretty, but also…chestnuts (kuri, to the right), and persimmons (kaki, to the left) are two of my most favorite things … ever. However, both were a little different than what I’m used to in North America. The outer shell of the kuri was thin and soft enough to peel by hand by simply denting or ‘slashing’ it with a nail. In comparison, the chestnuts most of us know in the U.S, and Canada have a hard, brittle shell that’s troublesome to crack open even when it’s been pre-slashed with a knife before cooking.
The kaki, or in this case, the hoshigaki (literally hoshi = star + gaki = elided form of kaki) were much softer and sweeter than I expected, since these were dry preserved versions. As with much of what I learned in Japan, I needed to research further upon returning home to Canada to fully enlighten myself. What I found out about hoshigaki was quite fascinating. I’d seen kaki drying outdoors, but didn’t realize the process they undergo. It seems the fruit are not just left out to dehydrate naturally. There is a very regimented way of caring for the persimmon so that they keep their tender and sweet inner flesh. The lucky guys get a massage almost every day until they are ready to eat. The massages keep the fruit from becoming rubbery like commercial dried apricots.
Apart from the food, there was the visit to a local shrine to pray for fortune in 2016. The event is called Hatsumode. People waited in a line all the way up a staircase. The wait was a bit long, but we were in Nagano, as opposed to a huge shrine in Tokyo, where there would have been tourists on top of locals.
Approaching the altar, we threw in a coin and assumed ‘the pose’, which is palms together and head down. I’ve often heard that in such a situation, one should state their name and their address, and then announce their prayer. Since I’m not religious, I was told to simply make a wish. And no, I did not recite my name and where I live, because I come from Canada, where that is considered instant identity theft!
Soon after leaving the altar, I was drawn to a tree with interesting fruit hanging from the highest branches. The sun was beating down, and I could not see what they were (damn low vision!). My friend told me it was a persimmon tree. And now that you all know I love kaki, I spent the end of hatsumode attempting to capture a decent photo of the soon-rotting fruit. On an ancient iPhone with sun in the way, it just didn’t work out.
But HAPPY face because PERSIMMONS! They were a nice way to begin and end Shogatsu 😉
For more info on the punny osechi ryori food items, click here!