On New Year's, A Break From Cooking


Photo by David Nakamura

For the Japanese housewife who longs for a moment of rest from the daily grind of cooking and cleaning, there is one date on the calendar she can look forward to for a break: New Year's Day.

At a time that otherwise signifies beginnings, a tradition has carried forward in which households across Japan celebrate by eating osechi ryori, a meal of small delicacies, including shrimp, fish cakes, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and black beans. They are prepared days in advance and preserved with heavy doses of sugar, soy sauce, and mirin (port wine), which allow the dishes to be served for several days without refrigeration.

This ingenious method was invented by housewives back when grocery stores remained closed for several days, and it offered the added benefit of giving then a respite from the kitchen (though only if they worked double-time leading up to the holiday). These days, housewives have it easier: Most families buy fancy, professionally prepared osechi from department stores, restaurants, and convenience stores that offer home delivery at an average cost of several hundred dollars.

Presentation is important: Done properly, Osechi is gorgeous to look at and each of the foods has a symbolic meaning.

After seeing stacks of elaborate plastic renderings in shop displays, I wondered: Does anyone still prepare osechi at home? I sent out emails and asked friends for leads, but I was mostly met by silence--and a few scoffs. Finally, my co-worker Ikuyo Watanabe put me in touch with her college friend Chikako Ito, 37, who lives with her husband Toru Fusegawa, 47, and their cat in a small apartment not too far from Tokyo's bustling Shibuya neighborhood.

Ito is a modern woman who works in customer service for Hewlett Packard but also cooks three meals a day. For the past decade, she has tried her hand at replicating the osechi she remembers from her mother Kiyo Ito, 63, a long-time home-maker who now operates a small bed-and-breakfast in Kyoto.

Kiyo, decked out in a green and red kimono, was with Chikako when I visited this week to observe them put the finishing touches on their home-made osechi. Lacquered boxes, called jubako, were stacked on the dining table, along with a handful of small decorations that would be used in the final presentation.

Two pots rested on the stove. One contained kuromame, a soft, smooth black bean, that had been soaked for a day, then mixed with sugar and soy sauce and boiled on a low flame for several hours. (Ironically, the beans had been prepared by Fusegawa, a modern husband who on the day I visited was puttering around the kitchen making tea.) The other pot held nimono, a stew of shiitake mushrooms, burdock and lotus roots, konnyaku (potato starch), chicken, and carrots.

Chikako picked up a knife and cut into a brick of kamaboko, a dense fish cake colored pale red and white, which are traditional New Year's colors. She had bought it at a grocery store.

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David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who believes that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy. More

David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who missed authentic Japanese food so much that he took a year off to escape to Tokyo on an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written about politics, education, sports and, every now and then, Japanese food for the Post. He headed a team of reporters that was awarded the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting after exposing excessive levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water and the government's failure to notify the public. His general philosophy is that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy.

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