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foods of the new year

31 December 2000

My refrigerator is full of lucky foods awaiting tomorrow's new year feast.

During the last days of the year, wives and mothers around the nation busily prepare osechi ryori, elegant new year foods packed in jyubako, multi-layered lacquer boxes.

Although I signed up to take a workshop to learn to make my own osechi just like okaasan ("mom" in Japanese), an unexpected trip to Chicago had me out of the country on the class date. So I took the lazy way out and bought my osechi ryori ready-made at the grocery store yesterday. It came in a rather inelegant, one-layer plastic box.

Real jyubako, three to five layers of shallow boxes in black or vermilion lacquer decorated with gilt patterns ranging from natural elements to modern abstracts, are passed down from generation to generation much like the fancy china services are passed along in our Western families. If you want to buy a new set of jyubako you can expect to spend up to $2000. Needless to say, I'm content with my disposable plastic box.

The osechi foods in the jyubako are as beautiful as the boxes themselves and as steeped in tradition and symbolism as they are in sauces.

Seichi were banquets held in the Imperial Japanese court over 1,000 years ago. They celebrated the transition from one season to another. Though the passage of osechi from royal banquet to home cooking is lost in the ages, it's possible that people began to offer some of these imperial treats to the toshigama, year-god, who is said to visit homes on the first day of the new year.

From royal banquet and sacred offering, osechi ryori has transformed into a way for housewives to enjoy a respite from cooking during the new year holiday. Osechi is prepared ahead of time, and all the dishes will keep for several days. Only rice and soup need to be prepared at each mealtime.

For soup, ozoni is a new year's tradition. In Tokyo, the soup is made with a clear fish stock and vegetables. The star of the soup is a mochi cake. Mochi is a sticky rice that's been pounded into a soft, chewy dough. When you eat ozoni, you're supposed to take one end of your mochi in your teeth and the other end in your chopsticks and stretch it like taffy. They say the longer the stretch, the longer you'll live. Mochi is extremely chewy stuff, and every year a few elderly mochi-eaters choke to death on it. Quite ironic, but the newspapers warn people not to let their grandparents eat mochi alone.

Back to the jyubako, each layer of the box contains a different type of food: simmered vegetables go in the lowest box; vinegared vegetable and fish salads are a layer above. The top box is for the metaphorical foods.

My osechi is only the metaphorical foods. What do I have?

There are a few things in my osechi box that I'm not so sure I want to eat. Call me squeamish but would you eat these?

Maybe toshigama, the year-god, will like the roe and the whole fishes. That's all I plan to share with him. Tod and I will eat the rest ourselves and supplement our new years meals with roast beef sandwiches and BLTs.

Yoi otoshi wo! (Good new year!)

Copyright 2003. Kristen McQuillin,