In fact, Japan has amazing traditions and rich symbolism when it comes to dishes for the New Year celebration, which is after all, the most important holiday in Japan. These special dishes which are offerings to deities, are called Osechi Ryori and they carry wishes for health and happiness for the next year.
We at Bento&co especially love this tradition because a beautiful type of multi-tiered bento box called Jyubako, plays a central role in this meal.
See our Jyubako collection here.
The food is served in these stackable boxes to represent layers of good luck and blessing piling up! These boxes are usually square, but there are also some that come in unique shapes, like our Cherry Blossom Picnic Bento | Red.
The History of Osechi Ryori
It’s said that the Osechi Ryori tradition has its roots in the Yayoi period, (300 BCE - 250 BCE), when special foods were offered to the deities during harvest festivals. These special dishes were enjoyed originally by the members of the court, but by the Edo period (1603-1867) more and more of the common people began enjoying Osechi Ryori.
Today in Japan, as January 1st approaches, many Japanese people will start preparing the many dishes involved in Osechi Ryori, or instead, will order it from their favorite local restaurant, online, or even from convenience stores like 7-11!
Because these assorted dishes have a history over thousands of years, they originated before the days of refrigeration and were originally prepared with strong seasoning to prevent it from going bad at room temperature. Because of this, many Japanese people have their preferences when it comes to certain Osechi Ryori dishes, and some children dislike Osechi Ryori because of the strong flavors. What everyone can agree on though is how beautiful the vibrant foods look served inside a multi-tier Jyubako.
Nowadays, most households will use a two or three tier Jyubako, but traditionally a five tier lacquered Jyubako is used. The top tier or bottom tier (depending on the region) is kept empty to receive blessings from the gods. Instead of food, the festive looking leaves and berries of the “Nan Ten” plant, otherwise known as Heavenly Bamboo, or Nandina Domestica, are placed inside the box. This is a very auspicious plant because it symbolizes the transformation of difficulties into blessings, which comes from a play on words, as "Nan" means "difficulty" and a homonym for “ten” is “turn/change”. And so, the leaves symbolize a desire to turn difficulties into blessings in the new year and to have resilience.
As for the other tiers, one is reserved for kai no sachi or “treasure of the ocean”, containing a variety of seafood and kelp dishes. Another tier is for yama no sachi or “treasure of the mountain”, specifically simmered vegetables and meat.
The Symbolism of Osechi Ryori Dishes
Let’s take a closer look at the symbolism of some classic Osechi Ryori dishes.
Datemaki in the lower right, with kouhaku namasu next to it. Kuri Kinton is next to the shrimp.
Kuromame are sweet simmered black beans that are often garnished with gold leaves. The word mame in Japanese means conscientious/diligent. So, this bean symbolizes a desire to live and work with vigor and productivity. In Japan, black is traditionally known for being a color that can ward off evil, and so for that reason, black beans are used.
Datemaki are a sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste. They resemble scrolls and thus symbolize knowledge and a hope to gain wisdom and insight. Make datemaki and tamagoyaki at home with our tamagoyaki collection.
Kuri Kinto are sweet potatoes that have been mashed, and mixed with sweetened chestnut. The golden color of this dish symbolizes wealth and abundance.
This is a vegetable dish of pickled radish and carrot in julienne strips. Kouhaku refers to the auspicious color combination of red and white. The white is said to symbolize death and the red to symbolize birth, and so the combination represents life force.
The curved body of the shrimp is said to resemble the curved back of an elderly person, along with its antennae that represent whiskers—and so the shrimp resembles longevity!
Enjoy Japanese New Year’s Foods at Home
Interested in recreating some of these dishes? Our friends over at Cooking with Dog and Just One Cookbook has a great collection of recipes. For simpler New Year’s foods, you can also try making some mochi with sweet red bean paste, or soba which is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. This type of soba is called “toshikoshi soba” and eating it right as the year passes into the new one is a way to wish for a smooth transition into the new year, and hope for a long life!
If you ever have an opportunity we encourage you to try Osechi Ryori, which has a history of over thousands of years and plays a significant role in Japanese culture. We are sure you will find something your tastebuds will love, and whose symbolism that you can appreciate.
In addition to being used during New Year celebrations, Jyubako are used during picnics. They can be used when entertaining year round, to serve appetizers or desserts, to transport cooked meals to a friend or family member in need, or to gift some handmade baked goods. For that reason, we love how versatile they are! See our whole collection here.
Want to see Osechi Ryori being prepared and beautifully placed inside a Jyubako? Check out the video we made in collaboration with local Kyoto Chef, Mr. Yamada using our Signature Bento. In a wonderful, modern take on Osechi Ryori, Mr. Yamada has combined classic osechi foods like Kuromame, Kouhaku Namasu and Datemaki with more western foods like cheese and smoked salmon! Learn more on our blog here.
Also check out the video below by the French YouTube channel Yatai, which shows many traditional Osechi foods being prepared and served in our Ojyu series Jyubakko. (English subtitles included.)