Thursday, December 15, 2011

O-sechi: Food to begin the New Year

2011 is drawing to an end. Christmas and New Year are just around the corner.

Since Christianity is not one of the major religions followed in Japan, Christmas is not celebrated in Japan in the real sense. But Christmas decorations can be seen all over the country. Christmas lights, sales people dressed in Santa claus attire, Christmas trees can be found aplenty. 

In Japan, New Year is known as “Shogatsu” and is one of the biggest holidays. Companies and institutions shut down for the New Year’s holiday. Infact, the entire country almost shuts down from work for a few days around the new year. The holidays usually begin around 28th or 29th of December and end on the 3rd or 4th of January. During these days, people usually travel to their home town and spend time with family. It is one of the big 3 holidays in Japan along with Golden week in May and O-bon in August. Travel during this period can be tedious and expensive. Flight tickets are sold out months before. Hotel bookings are hard to find if not planned well in advance. Highways and expressways are packed.

In a country where tradition and modern life go hand in hand, New year celebration also sees an interesting mix of both. The year end parties dubbed “ Bonenkai” begin right from early December. People send New year cards well in advance to avoid being late in wishing their loved ones. Homes are cleaned for the New year “O-soji” tradition, where old and unwanted things are discarded to make for newer and better things. 

A write up about the New year celebrations is incomplete without mentioning about the traditional food eaten on new year day. On this day, Japanese people eat a special selection of dishes called “O-sechi”. It mainly includes the following:

1.  “Mochi” – a rice cake
2.  “O-zoni”- soup made with glutinous rice cake dumplings and vegetables.
3.  “Kamaboko”- broiled fish paste cake
4.  “Datemaki”- Sweet rolled omelette mixed with shrimp or fish paste.
5.  “Kazunoko”- Fish roe- usually Herring roe.
6.  “ Kobumaki”- Tuna fish wrapped in sweet boiled kelp
7.  “ Kuromame”- Sweetened black soybeans
8.  “Kohakunamasu”- Pickled strips of carrot and Daikon (Japanese radish)
9.  “ Ebi no yaki”- Shrimp- usually cooked in sake and soy sauce mixture
10.“Kurikinton”- Boiled and Mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts. 
11. “Ikura” – Salmon roe

The O-sechi set may include a variety of other foods, the above being only an example. Each of the food forming part of the O-sechi have a special importance. They are seen as signs of good luck, wishes for good health, fertility, good harvest, and prosperity. 

Traditionally women were not allowed to cook on the first three days of the New year as it was considered a taboo. Only Ozoni was allowed to be made and thus was born the tradition of “O-sechi”. The O-sechi tradition is said to date back to the Heian period.

Nowadays “O-sechi” boxes are available in supermarkets, a boon for people who cannot make the O-sechi at home. Since making so many dishes before hand is difficult in today’s busy world, more and more people rely on these O-sechi boxes. 

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