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Osechi: Traditional Japanese New Year’s Food – Meaning

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/11 Food, Traditional Culture , , ,

In my previous post about osechi, I mentioned that each dish has its own meaning and significance. You can think of juubako of osechi as a box full of one’s desires or wishes for himself or for his families for the New Year.

What dishes and how they are arranged may differ in every region or household. Below are the descriptions of each layer and the most common dishes including the meaning of each dish.

Layers of Osechi

“Ichi no juu” (1st Top Layer)

“Iwai-zakana”, good for appetizers. It consists of kuromame (black soy beans), kazu no ko (herring roe), gomame (dried young anchovies), etc.

“Ni no juu” (2nd Layer)

Group of sweet dishes like date-maki (rolled omelette mixed with fish paste), kinton (mashed sweet potato), and more.

“San no juu” (3rd Layer)

“Umi no sachi”, which represents seafoods, consists of grilled fish, shrimps and alike.

“Yo no juu” (4th Layer)

“Yama no sachi”, which represents vegetables, consists mainly of boiled or stewed vegetable dishes.


Meaning of each dish

Kuromame (black beans)

From the phrase “kuroku mame-mameshiku”, which means to be able to work hard. It can also mean “mame ni kurasu”, to live healthy.
kuromame (black beans)
Photo by Satoshi KINOKUNI

Kazu no ko (herring roe)

“Kazu” for many and “ko” for children, which connotes a wish to be blessed with many children.
kazu no ko (herring roe)
Photo by gtknj

Kuri-kinton (chesnut stewed in sugar)

Kuri-kinton is written as 栗金団 which consists of kanji character of money (金) and its color is similar to gold that symbolizes wealth.
chestnut (kuri-kinton)
Photo by midorisyu

Tazukuri (dried sardines cooked in soy sauce and sugar)

To wish for abundant harvest. In the old days, young Japanese anchovies were used as fertilizers. Probably the reason why it is also called gomame (五万米), 五万 is fifty thousand while 米 means rice.
Tazukuri/Gomame (dried young anchovies or sardines)
Photo by hisa fujimoto

Kobu-maki (kelp rolls with fish, such as salmon, inside it)

From the word “yorokobu” means happy. It is one of the standard items for celebrations.
kobu-maki (kelp rolls with fish in it)
Photo by Junpei Abe

Ise-ebi (Lobster)

To wish a long life until one’s back is bent like a lobster. The color red of cooked lobster is also believed to ward off evil spirits.
Ise-ebi (lobster)
Photo by ニャホ

Kouhaku-kamaboko (mixed of pink and white fish cakes)

The combination of color red/pink and white has been used to symbolize celebration since the old days and to wish for peace.
Kouhaku-kamaboko (red/white fish cakes)
Photo by midorisyu


Additional Info

When eating osechi on New Year, special chopsticks called “iwai-bashi” are used. Iwai-bashi, as you can see in the picture below, is a bit different from the regular chopsticks.

Iwai-bashi (chopticks for osechi)Photo by Kazuhisa OTSUBO

Iwai-bashi (chopticks for osechi) 2Photo by y_ogagaga

Both side of the chopsticks are pointed. One side is for the God of New Year to use and the other side for yourself, so be sure to use the same side when eating. Iwai-bashi is not disposable. So you can wash it after every use. You need to use it from the New Year’s Day until 15th of January, 7th on some areas.

When you have the chance to eat osechi next New Year, take a moment to realize the meaning of each dish while savoring it. Again, happy New Year to everyone!

Osechi – Iroha-japan
Osechi Ryouri – Jp-guide

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A gaijin in Okayama who enjoys viewing cherry blossom in spring, fireworks in summer, eating grilled sanma (Pacific saury fish) in autumn and oden in winter.

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