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.

"Cut it like a fan," her mother instructed, zig-zagging her finger in the air.

"I can't do this," Chikako replied. Kiyo moved her daughter aside, took the knife and cut a jagged shape into the fish cake. Then she held out a piece for inspection, adding sheepishly: "It takes a professional to make it very beautiful."

"I don't like doing it like that," Chikako said. "I need more discipline." Then she thought of a Japanese friend who is living in London. "She makes osechi once a year, but she told me that her neighbors who are Jewish do this every week!" she marveled, explaining that the Jews don't make osechi but rather traditional Jewish meals on Fridays that are eaten on Saturdays.

Chikako, who usually sends out New Year's cards featuring pictures of her osechi, had planned to give up the tradition this year. "I was sick it, tired of cooking," she said. But she and her husband found a package of beans while cleaning the house and decided to give it one more shot.

As mother and daughter worked, arranging the dishes in the lacquer boxes, they continued to disagree over the presentation. Kiyo wanted the osechi packed close together; Chikako preferred space in between to allow garnishes to be seen. Kiyo favored fish cake that was artificially colored red or pink; Chikako liked the natural orange hue.

Presentation is important: Done properly, Osechi is gorgeous to look at and each of the foods has a symbolic meaning. For example, salmon roe (eggs) represent fertility and curved shrimp (liked the curved spine of the elderly) means long-life.

Chikako placed a scoop of roe in the hollowed out peel of a yuzu (a citrus fruit that resembles a lemon), then picked up a plastic bag containing thin flakes of real gold. She took a pinch in her palm. I asked where she got the flakes. "I think my mom makes money on the side by selling them," she joked, letting out a laugh. Her breath swept the gold from her hand into a bowl of shredded carrots and daikon radish. Whoops.

She picked out the flakes one by one, then placed them carefully atop the roe.

Finally, the presentation was complete--a colorful mix of shapes and textures, some resting in bamboo shaped like a boat. The osechi would be stored in a cool area of the house, to be consumed, along with ozoni, a soup of vegetables and potatoes, as the first meal on New Year's Day. In the past, they would also be served the next two days. But times change. "We might eat it the first day and maybe for lunch the second day," Chikako said. "But after that we might eat pizza or spaghetti. We'll get sick of it."