Last month the company wives from Komatsu America Corp gathered at a private home to prepare a taste of Osechi-Ryori for their American friends. Osechi Ryori is a collection of special foods the Japanese people eat at the beginning of the New Year. Generally, Osechi isn’t found on regular restaurant menus and is a specialty enjoyed at home.
Komatsu America Corp. is located in Newberry, South Carolina. It is a U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s Komatsu Ltd., which is the world’s second largest manufacturer and supplier of construction, mining and compact construction equipment.
Besides the beauty and delicious taste of Osechi Ryori, the dishes are convenient for housewives since they are prepared in advance. Originally, when Japanese stores were closed for several days during the New Year holiday, the foods could sit out in a cool area for several hours or even days without spoiling. The tradition allows housewives time to relax and enjoy the holiday with their families. Osechi is also offered to guests who drop in bringing their best wishes for a prosperous New Year. Usually only rice, soup and tea are freshly prepared for the meal.
Many Osechi foods are arranged in handsome compartmentalized lacquer boxes that are stacked in layers. I was so enamored with these beautiful containers when I lived in Japan that I started my own collection. Some of my favorites, called jubako, come in stacks of two, three or five layers. I use some of the stacked boxes in a variety of creative ways to hold items other than food.
Preparing Osechi is something of an art. It is time consuming and can be especially difficult to prepare, especially in the United States, where all the ingredients are hard to find. The Komatsu wives had some crucial ingredients for their party shipped from Japan. The preparation of homemade Osechi is becoming more rare even in Japan and people often buy it from restaurants, markets, convenience stores and department stores. Although expensive, the ordering begins in October and the most popular items sell out quickly.
Presentation is paramount with Osechi. Inside the stacked box, each layer of foods is set according to custom and creates a balance of colors, tastes and textures. Seasonal touches abound – ingredients may be cut in shapes like pine cones or plum blossoms. Foods are often symbolic, representing qualities such as prosperity and good health.
The first layer (ichinojyu) will contain hors d’ oeuvre-like foods and some sweet dishes. The second layer (ninojyu) may contain steamed dishes, tidbits of seafood dishes and vinegared foods. The third layer (sannojyu) will include many simmered vegetable dishes. A fourth layer may contain simmered, seasoned root vegetables. Mitsuzakana represents three kinds of traditional dishes always included in Osechi Ryori. The dishes may differ throughout Japan. In Eastern Japan (Kanto), they are Kuromame (black beans), Kazunoko (herring roe) and Tazukuri (crunchy sardines). Tatakigobo often replaces the sardines in Western Japan (Kansai) area.
Here is a quick rundown of just a few of the most popular dishes. A picture is worth a thousand words so take a good look at all the photos to get an idea of how beautiful these dishes can look.
Datemaki is a sweet egg omelet rolled up in a bamboo mat. The mat leaves indentations in the roll, creating an attractive designed when sliced. Datemaki is said to represent learning and knowledge.
Kazunoko – Seasoned herring roe brings prosperity for increasing one’s descendants.
Kamaboko -red (or pink) and white fish cake loaf – represents the rising sun. Delicious dipped in soy sauce.
Kinton – Mashed Sweet Potato. Kuri-Kinton is very popular, made with mashed chestnuts and sweet potato. Japanese sweet potatos have a reddish-purple skin and a pale yellow flesh when cooked. Kin means ‘gold’ and ton means ‘group’ in Chinese characters. Kinton represents an abundance of wealth. (photo above)
Kuromame (Black soybeans) Sweet, tender, shiny black soybeans that are eaten for strength and good health. Japanese cooks add a rusty nail wrapped in cheesecloth or gauze to give the beans their characteristic shiny appearance.
Mochi – Sweet glutinous rice, soaked, pounded and shaped into rice cakes. Modern housewives use a mochi machine that resembles a breadmaker. Mochi is very glutinous and older people are reminded to be careful eating the soft, chewy stuff in soup during the New Year. During the New Year festivities, Kagamir-mochi or pounded rice cakes are stacked and displayed as an offering to the gods.
Namasu-Shredded, vinegared carrot and white daikon radish. A blend of red and white represents happiness and peace. In the photo, the namasu is in a bowl set into a jubako, or lacquered box. Salmon roe (ikura) garnishes the top.
Ozoni– Soup made with vegetables and mochi-or pounded rice cakes. Ozoni tastes somewhat different in the Kanto and Kansai districts. In the Kanto (Tokyo) region, the stock is clear and the flavor is hearty. In the Kansai (Kyoto) region, a more delicate soup is preferred, usually made with sweet, white miso paste.
Tatakigobou – Boiled, seasoned burdock root is eaten for good luck.
Tai (sea bream) is associated with joyous or auspicious occasions.
Tazukuri – A taste of dried, seasoned young sardines cooked in seasoned soy sauce brings forth a good harvest. Tazukuri is a finger food – slightly crunchy and quite tasty. Often served as a bar snack.
Toshi-koshi soba – Soba noodles served in households and temples across Japan just before midnight. The noodles are eaten as the New Year arrives. Temples begin ringing gongs 108 times at midnight to eliminate each type of greed. Toshi-koshi soba ensures longevity and prosperity.
Photos C. by Susan F. Slack
Read Allison Askin’s food page in the State Newspaper today.