During Japan’s Shogatsu (New Year), there is the tradition of osechi ryori, or, roughly translated, seasonal cuisine. Osechi are like specially prepared holiday bento boxes, which started in the Heian Period (794-1185). The meal-prep is meant to minimize activity in the kitchen during the New Year, giving the gods and everyone else (especially women) some much-deserved rest.
The contents of osechi are an encouraging array of foods that represent different hopes and dreams for the coming year. These foods are carefully arranged in stacked boxes called jubako. Each tier offers a course of appetizers, snacks and more substantial meals.
For today’s Japanese Recipe Adventure, I considered hopes and dreams for the future, cleared every possible surface in and around my not-so-spacious kitchen and attempted this festive Japanese food ensemble.
You’ll only need a few essential items for this osechi recipe. It makes five dishes and should be enough for two people.
- 2-3 tiered jubako (this recipe uses one-tier)
- Bamboo rolling mat
- Cupcake liners or ramekins that fit inside the jubako
1. Boiled black soybeans
Kuromame, or boiled black soybeans, represent health and productivity. This is because “mame” sounds similar to the word “majime” which means “diligent.”
- 200g black soybeans
- 5 cups water
- 180g sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
Start this recipe a day ahead for the best results. In a medium pot, soak the beans in five cups of water overnight (or for a minimum of four hours). After soaking, add the remaining ingredients except for the soy sauce to the pot and boil over medium heat.
Reduce the heat to a simmer, skim off any scum, cover and gently cook for a further 3-5 hours until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Once tender, add the soy sauce and stir. Remove from the heat.
Allow the beans to cool and transfer to a container. Store in the fridge overnight (8-12 hours) to let the flavors develop.
The curved shell of simmered ebi, or shrimp, represents the wish for long life. Why? Well, the shape resembles the curved back of a senior citizen.
- 4 uncooked shrimp
- 4-6 toothpicks
- 150ml water
- 1/2tsp dashi (stock) powder
- 2 tbsp mentsuyu
- 1 tbsp sugar
Rinse the shrimp of any sand or grit and remove the digestive tract using a toothpick (as pictured). Next, skewer the shrimp so that its tail meets with its body. Combine the remaining ingredients in a pot over medium heat and bring to a boil.
Add the shrimp and reduce to a simmer for three minutes, flipping the shrimp if necessary. Remove from the heat and allow the shrimp to cool in the pan with the liquid. Set aside.
3. Sweet rolled omelet
Datemaki, or sweet rolled omelet, symbolizes greater knowledge and cultural understanding because it looks like a scholarly scroll.
- 100g of fish paste (hanpen in Japanese)
- 2 eggs
- ½ tsp mirin
- 1 tbsp sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp mentsuyu
- Cooking oil
Dice the fish paste into cubes and blend with eggs, mirin, sugar, salt and mentsuyu in a food processor. Lightly grease a frying pan with the cooking oil and set over low heat.
Pour the blended egg mix into the pan, cover and cook on one side for 15 minutes. Turn the cooked egg onto a bamboo mat lined with baking paper (cooked side down) and roll tightly without overlapping the bamboo mat into itself.
Secure the roll with rubber bands and leave until completely cool before carefully removing the bamboo mat. Slice into 2cm thick slices. Set aside.
4. Candied chestnuts and sweet potato
Kuri kinton, or candied chestnuts and sweet potato, represents economic prosperity because the chestnuts and sweet potato resemble gold.
- 1 sweet potato
- 2 dried gardenia pods (kuchinashi no mi) (optional)
- 10g dark sugar syrup
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tbsp mirin
- Jar of candied chestnuts (kuri kanroni)
- 2 tbsp of reserved syrup from the chestnuts
Peel, rinse and slice the sweet potato into 2cm rounds. Place potato and gardenia pods (if using) into a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil over high heat and cook for ten minutes or until tender. Strain the water, discard the pods and then mash the potato (or use a sieve).
Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and combine over low heat for five minutes. Set aside.
5. Crispy, caramelized sardines
These slightly sweet but oh-so-crispy sardines, or tazukuri, symbolize hope for a good harvest because dried fish makes for good fertilizer on the farm.
- 30g dried, baby sardines
- 2 tbsp mentsuyu
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp mirin
- 1 tsp roasted black sesame seeds
Preheat a wok over high heat for a few minutes before dry frying the sardines for 1-2 minutes. Then, remove the sardines from the wok.
Add the mentsuyu, sugar and mirin and bring to a boil. Allow the mixture to turn a deep amber/caramel color (2-3 mins) before adding the sardines back in with the sesame seeds. Stir well until everything is combined and then remove from the heat. Set aside.
5. Red and white fish cakes
Red and white fishcakes, or kamaboko, are readily available in stores around New Year’s. They are included in osechi because they resemble a rising sun and symbolize happiness (red) and purity (white).
- 1 red kamaboko log
- 1 white kamaboko log
Slice the fish cakes into 1cm slices. Set aside.
Arranging your Osechi
Think logically and creatively when arranging your dishes inside your jubako. For example, nobody wants shrimp juice in their kuri kinton or soggy tazukuri.
Ensure each dish is protected from its neighbor by using small cupcake liners or ramekins. While this is a little subjective, try to showcase the array of colors by contrasting them against each other.
Make sure your jubako lid can be closed unless you have no intention of eating your osechi at a later date. It should be good for three days. Once you’re happy with how you’ve arranged your osechi, it’s time to say “itadakimasu (‘thank you for the meal’)” and dig in.
How did it turn out?
When I purchased the jubako, I thought the size would be big enough to fit everything in a single tier. How wrong I was. If you are planning on making this exact recipe and want to fit every dish into one tier, look for a jubako larger than 15cm square. You will be left with a bit of extra food, so be prepared to store any surplus in additional containers.
This particular osechi was also on the sweeter side. I could have balanced the flavors by including namasu (pickled carrot and daikon) or kazunoko (herring roe). But I selected my dishes based on my life goals (and kitchen size), and kazunoko symbolizes being blessed with many children. No thanks. However, if you want to add more carbs, consider making chikuzen-ni (simmered vegetables) and a serving of sekihan (red bean rice).
While each recipe was relatively simple, the whole process was an undertaking. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that a common trend is to make osechi using both homemade and store-bought dishes. Suppose you want to skip the homemade version altogether. In that case, premade osechi can be ordered in advance from department stores and even konbini (convenience stores), but where’s the fun in that?
Would you try or have you tried making osechi yourself? How did it turn out? Let us know in the comments!