Thursday, December 24, 2009

Japanese New Year

The celebration of the New Year is the most important holiday in Japan. Practically every business closes for at least 3 days, there's a mass exodus from Tokyo as people return to their parents' homes in the countryside or in other cities, and everyone relaxes, toasting mochi (rice cakes) and mikan (tangerines) on the gas heater. Since there are a lot of relatives around and the lady of the house also needs a chance to relax, the traditional meal for New Year's Day consists almost entirely of preserved foods beautifully arranged in stacked lacquer boxes, called o-sechi ryori.
Of course, there are many women who pride themselves on cooking everything themselves, and serving it up on the beautiful lacquer trays and in the boxes and dishes on display in all the department stores this time of year. But there is also the option of ordering your o-sechi, to be delivered New Year's Eve, from a department store, supermarket, or even convenience store (naturally, these vary greatly in price). Every store offers a catalogue describing and picturing the options, and at Mitsukoshi, where I took these photos, there's even a whole area of one floor devoted to displaying plastic models of each available set, so you can see exactly what you're ordering in full color and life size.
Whole shrimp (and in the more expensive boxes, whole lobsters or crabs), with heads and legs attached, are usually the first thing to catch my eye in these boxes. I'm assuming they are an exception to the rule that the foods in the box can be prepared ahead and will keep over several days. Pickled fish eggs, both the red salmon roe and the yellow herring roe, which is crunchy and comes in a wedge of eggs all stuck together, are always present, but there's never sashimi - the fish is either salted, smoked, or pickled in soy sauce, or it's made into the rubbery pink-and-white kamaboko you can see at top right in the upper box in the photo below.
Many of the foods have symbolic meaning - red and white are the colors of good luck, for example, thus the colored kamaboko, the prominence of shrimp and carrots (a special, dark-orange carrot from Kyoto, cut into flower shapes, of course), bite-size turnip-and-crab rolls, and other red and white foods. The herring roe is symbolic of good fortune, since yellow is the color of money and the number of eggs in each wedge is too numerous to be counted. The black, candied beans are also a good-luck symbol, though I'm not sure why. They're cooked for 12 or more hours in a syrupy broth of sugar and soy sauce, and they come out so incredibly rich that one or two is all you can eat. Each of these boxes, by the way, serves 2-4 people and costs 2-300 dollars. The most fancy boxes can cost much more. Last year I ordered a small box (about 100 dollars) when Yuri came to visit, and while it was fun to eat such beautiful food, I felt like everything tasted the same - very sweet. It's interesting how many cultures share the same principle of ushering in a sweet new year by eating lots of sugar. Not that I'm complaining!

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