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Cooking Osechi Ryori

By Sara Aoyama

Osechi ryori is a New Year’s assortment of especially prepared seafood, vegetables and other dishes beautifully displayed and presented in multi-tiered lacquered trays that come stacked together.

When I first experienced osechi ryori (special food in laquered boxes for New Year's) it was at a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Kyoto owned by a friend's parents. They invited me to come over on New Year's Day. These boxes were very beautiful to look at and filled with unidentified objects, some of which did not even appear to be edible. Other Americans had warned me about "the boxes." I didn't think they were very good.

A few years later I had a chance to eat osechi again at my in-laws' house. It was the first New Year's I was spending with them, and they were determined to show me a proper one. But, because they run three businesses and are often too busy to get all the year-end jobs done, they decided to order (rather than cook) a set of boxes from a very famous and fancy caterer. In fact they cost over $400, and again I didn't much like them, though they were magnificent to the eye. Along with all of these expensive delicacies, and as a decorative touch, there were three cocktail franks carved into the shape of octopuses which my young nieces automatically claimed with glee, and then shouted for more. The adults all looked a little envious.

The next year, for the first time, I attempted my own osechi ryori. I had been attending the Tsuji Cooking School in Tokyo, and we had cooked some of the dishes there. I was also equipped with their two-volume cookbook.

What follows is a description of my last twelve years in the art of osechi ryori. Remember, when I originally wrote this piece, I wasn't training in karate. But I wondered if in some way it could be a paradigm --for the study of any traditional Japanese art.

Cooking Osechi Ryori: A Reflection of the 12 Year Process

1. Followed all the recipes perfectly and arranged it to look exactly like the pictures in the book (to the best of my poor ability). Cheated and bought the things which were hard to cook (realizing, since they sold it, that "real" Japanese housewives cheated too). Also, included the delicacies which I knew I wouldn't eat, but figured that someone would eat them or that they had to be there anyway (= respect for tradition). Some were eaten by my husband (no accounting for taste) but others were not.

2. Consulted with other friends at the beginning stages of osechi cooking. Bought a few more cookbooks and December issues of cooking magazines. Looked for the best recipes but still included everything that had to be included. Was proud to be totally traditional and correct.

3. Noted that magazines were now introducing innovations like "Western style osechi" or "Chinese style osechi." Still kept to the traditional Japanese style, and felt some amount of scorn for those who were copping out with these "new varieties." But did drop some of the more expensive delicacies that nobody wanted to eat anyway.

4. Was beginning to know what tasted good and what my own family would eat. Changed ingredients slightly and accordingly, but strived for perfection in what I made. Worked myself into a frenzy while preparing it and alienated my whole family who thus forth dreaded the whole process. Demanded more appreciation from them, but failed to get much. Felt indignant.
5. Realized that as long as the right things were in the right box, they could be creatively designed! But only did that after looking at thousands of pictures and making detailed diagrams.

6. Moved back to America. Couldn't get half of the ingredients. Tried mail-order Japanese grocers in desperation. Three boxes sometimes became two. A certain amount of resignation and acceptance set in after some period of depression. Delicious content became more important than traditional content sometimes. Sometimes not. Family seemed relieved.

7. Became fed up with cooking it and wondered how relevant it was to us. Began to think it was kind of ridiculous to spend so much time on something that was gone so fast and nobody really appreciated anyway. Also wondered how relevant it was anymore even to life in Japan, since 7-11 convenience stores were now open on every block and plenty of restaurants kept their doors opened even on New Year's Day, unlike the "good old days" when the whole country really did close down for 5-7 days. Realized I must be getting old and geezerish to be grumbling about such a thing.

8. Kind of missed doing it.

9. Decided to cook it again. Took out all the cookbooks. Made detailed notes of what sounded good to eat and was practical and would work for us. Thought about starting a computer file on it. After gathering recipes from all sorts of sources, put the books away and arranged them in the boxes the way I thought looked good. Did, however, try and keep the first layer kind of traditional.

10. Realized that while traditionally these dishes were made to last for a few days and would be eaten cold, or at best at room-temperature, actually a lot of the stuff tasted much better heated. Zap. Made use of microwave.

11. Incorporated the cooking of osechi ryori into my life and made it my own personal ritual for celebrating New Year's Eve (Yes, I have no life).

12. January 1, 1998. Finished cooking this year's osechi at 11:52 PM on December 31. Since the last dish was a nimono (boiled dish), was able to totally finish cleaning the kitchen as it cooked. Felt very proud at getting the timing so perfect. Took off my apron and greeted the New Year.

13. Lastly, before falling asleep, realized that although I'd never seen it in any osechi cookbook, potatos (cut into match sticks) wrapped in turkey bacon (zapped in the microwave) would be a perfect addition to osechi for next year! Feels like I have taken a new leap in the understanding of osechi and its applications. Can justify this potato dish to any who wonder on the grounds that makimono (wrapped things) are auspicious for the new year. Also, the colors are very auspicious--red and white--kohaku!!

14. Start reflecting on how I'll do it differently next year.

Editor’s Note: What, exactly, is osechi ryor? Osechi ryori is special food often cooked at home to celebrate New Year, one of the most important of Japanese festivals. New Year’s is a sort of Christmas and Thanksgiving wrapped into one, a time when family gather to celebrate. While osechi ryori differs by region and from family to family, the food has a lot in common. Some of this food is arranged in multi-layer lacquered boxes called jubako. The top box or tier often includes kamaboko (boiled fish-paste cakes), hiriame-no-kombujime (flounder with kelp) and kohada-no-sunomono (punctatus marinated in vinegar). The second box or tier might contain kabu-no-sunomono (turnip with vinegar), ebi (prawn), kuri (sweet chestnuts), and toriniku-no-terriyaki (grilled chicken basted with a sweet soy based sauce). A third box or tier might contain tai (sea bream), Ika (squid) and namabu (wheat glutton). The fourth or bottom tier might have nishime (boiled vegetables). Other of other foods may also be served in a variety of bowls along with osechi ryori. These include: kuromama (black beans in a boiled syrup) which symbolizes good health, kazunoko (herring roe, or eggs, most often seasoned with soy sauce) which is a symbol of procreativity, kurikinton (sweet chestnuts and mashed sweet potato boiled in a sweet sauce), nishime (an artistically arranged assortment of vegetables and burdock and lotus roots, taro and other ingredients), tazukur (a small sardine dish) that symbolizes a good harvest, and namasu (salad of shredded Japanese radish and carrot seasoned in vinegar). Other New Year’s dishes also include yakizakana (grilled fish), tosa (a special drink of spiced sake drunk in celebration and in prayer for the upcoming year, Kagamir-mochi (pounded rice cakes) offered to the gods, and zoni (a soup made of mochi along with vegetables, fish, chicken and other ingredients, seasoned with miso, a fermented soy paste).

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About The Author:

Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, where she majored in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other arts such as Ikebana (flower arranging), cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in Brattleboro, Vermont where she trains in Shorin-ryu Karate. Currently she continues her studies in Kishaba Juku karate under Sensei George Donahue and is also a student of Tai Chi Chuan. She is a freelance Japanese-English translator. Most recently, she translated "The Art of Lying" by Kazuo Sakai, MD., and “Karate Kyohan” by Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. Aoyama is a regular contributor to

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