Story by Jon Letman
Next to life itself, food is the greatest gift. To share food is to extend another’s life, to celebrate bounty and to perpetuate culture. One could argue that the Japanese, as much as anyone, exhibit their culture and values though food. The presentation of a dish—its color, form, flavor, texture, geometric shape, temperature and the number of and order in which it is served—imparts Japanese core values: simplicity, harmony and balance.
Never is this more true than for Japanese New Year’s cuisine: osechi ryori (literally ‘honorable season’). Abbreviated here as “osechi,” this highly structured and meticulously prepared culinary heritage, rich in symbolism, is the ultimate expression of Japanese culinary arts.
Making osechi is no simple task. Typically made by the women of the house, osechi can easily surpass two dozen elaborate dishes that must be prepared in addition to the tasks of cleaning house, year-end gift giving, writing and sending many dozens (even hundreds) of New Years greeting cards and buying year-end provisions like sake, flowers and kadomatsu decorations.
Beginning New Year’s Day, osechi is served to family, friends and guests and meant to be the sole source of food during the three-day Oshougatsu (Japanese New Year) period. Because Japanese winters are cold and even today many homes are only heated on a room-by-room basis, it’s easy to find a part of the house cold enough to keep the prepared dishes chilled without ‘over-chilling’ them in a refrigerator.
Living off osechi during Oshougatsu relieves the family’s chief meal preparer of cooking duties for three days, but today many Japanese families enjoy a scaled back version of osechi and, by the second day, may be eating take-out Chinese, sushi or even fast food.
Osechi’s roots go back at least 1,200 years and possibly much further. As the first food eaten in the new year, osechi symbolizes life’s greatest aspirations: health, fertility, prosperity, success and diligence. Three of the most commonly used ingredients—kazunoko (brined herring roe), kuromame (black beans) and tazukuri (baby sardines),—symbolize many children, health and success, respectively.
Other ingredients, whether eel, crab and red snapper rolled as sushi, lily root folded in the shape of a white plum blossom, konbu seaweed ‘ribbons’ or pink and white kamaboko (fish cake) cut to resemble flower petals, all have auspicious associations.
Typically osechi is served in three-tiered decorative boxes called jubako. These lacqueraware boxes are usually black, gold or vermilion and emblazoned with images of bamboo, pine branches or plum blossoms.
For many people today, making osechi is just too much work. In Hawai‘i, instead of spending days preparing several dozen dishes, it’s far more common to begin New Year’s day with ozoni soup, mochi, a sip of sake and simpler preparations of nishime stew and giant prawns.
Like osechi, these dishes require ingredients that may be available only in December. To meet year-end demand, local Hawai‘i farmers and produce wholesalers plan months in advance to grow, ship and distribute vegetables like mizuna, a Japanese mustard green (Brassica juncea var. japonica), gobo (burdock root) and araimo—locally called dasheen—a miniature form of taro.
Earl Kashiwagi, general manager for Esaki’s Produce on Kaua‘i sources mizuna and gobou from multiple islands because “you never know which island is going to have a weather problem.” He has to commit to buy the vegetables in June to ensure delivery in time for the five or six-day sale window at the end of the year.
And even though Esaki’s is a wholesale distributor, every year Kashiwagi sees individual customers come to him directly, desperate for an ingredient their local grocer doesn’t have.
“They walk in, even on New Years Eve and say, ‘Uncle, you got any mizuna inside your ice box?”
December also sees higher demand for daikon radishes, renkon (lotus root) and carrots. Kashiwagi can still get these vegetables locally, but says others are growing scarce with each passing year.
“It’s becoming a challenge every year to get all of these things because there are not too many Japanese farmers left who follow the traditions,” Kashiwagi says.
The greatest gift
One Honolulu-based chef who still prepares osechi annually is Shuji Abe, owner of Takumi Catering & Planning on Kapiolani Boulevard. He begins planning his coming New Year’s menu 12 months out.
In addition to fish and seafood associated with celebrations (red snapper, spiny lobster, herring and salmon roe), osechi relies heavily on root vegetables. Unlike the locally grown daikon, renkon and gobou, Abe must import kuwai (arrowhead root) and kintoki ninjin, a sweet red carrot. As much as 60 percent of the ingredients he needs aren’t available in Hawai‘i.
As families become more diffuse and long-held traditions fall victim to changing habits, the old custom of multi-generations dedicating two or more full days to making osechi has declined. For Abe too, societal changes have led him to produce simpler menus. In the last decade, however, he has observed a renewed interest in the more elaborately prepared osechi dishes.
Abe, who has lived in Hawai‘i since 1981, says the basic techniques employed in osechi— the cutting, boiling, peeling, sculpting— are used in other dishes throughout the year. Thus, he contends, a Japanese chef is preparing for osechi all year long, whether they actually make it or not.
With dishes as time-consuming as they are, Abe doesn’t make osechi for the masses. Working alone, he plans his menu one year in advance and by the end of December is singularly focused on the year’s culminating preparation with some of the more complex dishes requiring over a week to fully complete.
When his work is finished, Abe wraps the three-tiered jubako in a furoshiki (ornamental kerchief) and delivers it to his most prized clients with whom he has a special relationship. In most years, he’ll prepare osechi for not more than four or five parties meaning all this work is for the pleasure of no more than 20 people.
To successfully plan and execute a three-day meal in which each dish is ready for presentation and delivery within a few hours of all the others on the final day of the year requires remarkable commitment and coordination.
Ultimately, Abe says his months of planning and days of cooking for the pleasure of just a few are his way of keeping Japanese culture alive, even far from home. Abe says he does it for himself too, and to share his love of Japanese food in a way that expresses his heartfelt thanks and appreciation.