Japanese New Year Food Traditions

When anything new happens in our lives, we Japanese get busy welcoming and celebrating that by throwing parties and organizing different colorful festivals.

And a new year is always more special to us. It means a new opportunity, new beginnings, and starting our life journey with new enthusiasm and goals.

So, we don’t deprive ourselves of celebrating this occasion also.

But you know what? No celebration can be complete without food.

We prepare lots of delicious and savory dishes to greet the new year. The reason behind this is not only to satisfy our tummy.

Most of the time, these dishes symbolize significant meanings related to the new beginning of life.

And if you are interested to know about the Japanese new year food traditions, then stay with me as I am going to discuss this topic today.

Japanese New Year Traditional Food

The traditional new year food in Japan is called osechi-ryori, which literally means new year’s food. It consists of numerous colorful dishes based on region and history.

osechi ryori

Well, before knowing the details about various osechi dishes, we should learn about two very important Japanese new year food traditions that are eaten before the osechi.

Technically, they are not a part of osechi, but they are integral to the specific food culture of the Japanese new year.

Let’s know about them first.

Omisoka Food or New Year’s Eve Food In Japan: Toshikoshi Soba

Japanese people typically eat toshikoshi soba around midnight on new year’s eve. It is a tasty noodle bowl dish that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Soba noodles are made from buckwheat, and that’s why their color is brownish. Japanese people also call it year crossing noodle, which has some symbolic meanings.

toshikoshi soba

The long and fine noodles represent long life, while the ease of cutting noodles with your teeth signifies a clear cut between this year and next year, leaving any negativity or hardship of the past year behind.

Another story includes a simple explanation like gathering strength as well as happiness and contentment from the savory noodles.

toshikoshi soba with toppings

One more theory that makes sense of eating these noodles is that once, goldsmith used this buckwheat flour to gather up the remaining gold dust that is related to growing fortune.

Well, whatever it is, ending the year with something comforting and delicious is obviously a good idea. At the same time, leaving all the negativity is a smart move too!

The First Meal of The New Year in Japan: Ozoni

Ozoni, also known as zoni without the honorifics, is another dish that should be your first new year meal to ensure good fortune in the coming year.

It is a soup dish containing mochi rice cakes, which is an insanely popular Japanese confection.

hiroshima style ozoni

You can enjoy Japanese new year food mochi at any time of the year, but starting the new year celebration with mochi is exceptionally meaningful for us.

Maybe you are curious about the reason.

Well, mochi is pronounced exactly the way as the Japanese word ‘to hold’ or ‘to have’. Hence, we Japanese eat this to garb good lucks for the new year.

After having these two hot soups, Japanese people usually eat the pre-prepared osechi ryori for the first three days of the year.

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All osechi dishes are eaten cold, and they are made in such a way to preserve for several days without any refrigeration.

First Three Days Meal of The New Year: Osechi Ryori

I have already let you know in brief what is osechi ryori.

Traditional Japanese food osechi ryori is a combination of several new year dishes that are packed in 2 to 3 layers of lacquer boxes called jubako, which is similar to bento boxes.

osechi ryori in jubako

While each of the dishes is served as well wishes for the coming year, the multi-layered boxes also bear a significant meaning.

It symbolizes the hope that happiness and wealth come alternatively, like the layers of lacquerware.

traditional japanese food box jubako

So, it is considered the most significant meal of the year, which reflects the Japanese food tradition.

Here I have included the most popular osechi ryori dishes to welcome the new year with you.

1. Kuromame (Sweetened Black Soybean)

Kuromame, meaning black bean in Japanese, is often included in osechi menu for new year’s day.

Kuromame has an incredibly glossy appearance, which makes a beautiful contrast to the red lacquer jubako container.

You might wonder how come the kuromame is this much shiny!

kuromame

Actually, they are boiled at low temperatures for up to eight hours in sugar and soy sauce. However, traditional recipes also require 2 to 3 rusty iron nails.

Yes! Don’t be surprised. You heard it right.

Rust or iron oxide chemically reacts with the tannin in the beans giving them an appetizing and uniform rich black color.

But you can use a reusable iron supplement cooking tool if you don’t like the idea of throwing rusty nails into your food.

As I said earlier, each dish has a significant meaning; kuromame symbolizes health as well as the capacity to work hard in the coming year.

2. Datemaki (Sweet Rolled Omelette)

Among all the dishes of osechi ryori, datemaki is my favorite, and I always look forward to eating this new year dish.

It is a sweet rolled omelette mostly made of eggs, along with a white fish cake called hanpen.

datemaki

This fish cake makes the dish fluffier, while the sweetness comes from a mixture of mirin, soy sauce, and honey.

The sweet and savory flavor and almost-cake-like texture make it a popular choice for the whole family.

And if you are curious about the meaning of this food, it signifies academic skill or success with studying.

3. Kazunoko (Herring Roe)

One of the most famous dishes among osechi ryori is Kazunoko, which is herring roe.

This popular delicacy has an exceptional crunchy texture, and it represents fertility.

Well, it is not difficult to understand the reason behind the meaning after seeing a large number of tiny eggs.

kazunoko

However, this golden-colored kazunoko has another deep meaning to represent.

Kazu means “number”, and “ko” means children in Japanese. Hence, this platter is eaten in the new year to wish for many children and grandchildren.

4. Kuri Kinton (Candied Chestnut with Sweet Potatoes)

If you want financial success for the new year, do not forget to include some kuri kinton in your osechi ryori.

To make this dish, you need to use Japanese sweet potato for its bright yellow color. They are sweeter than regular sweet potatoes, and yellow is also a propitious color for the coming year.

kuri kinton

Kurikinton literally means chestnut gold dumplings, which is candied chestnut served either on their own or in a sweet potato mash.

The chestnuts look like gold coins and the overall golden tone of this dish is known to denote wealth and financial prosperity.

5. Tazukuri (Candied Sardines)

Roasted baby sardines are coated with honey and soy sauce glaze. This is tazukuri for you, which literally translates to making rice paddy.

You may wonder how sardines are related to rice paddy!

tazukuri

Well, people used to utilize sardines as fertilizers for rice fields in the past, and like many ancient rituals, this dish symbolizes a bountiful harvest.

Hence, we Japanese enjoy tazukuri in the new year in order to get plenty of harvest in the coming year.

6. Kikka Kabu (Pickled Chrysanthemum Turnips)

Kikka kabu is a dish made of baby turnip that is often prepared in Japan for the new year celebration. You just need to know some basic cutting techniques to prepare this dish.

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Turnip is a hearty root vegetable, and it is cut and shaped to look like a chrysanthemum flower and then pickled in vinegar, salt, and sugar.

Then some chili pepper is placed in the middle of the shaped turnip to add some color and give it a perfect flower-like shape.

We chose the chrysanthemum shape to celebrate this happy occasion as it is the symbol of the emperor in Japan used to mark joyous events.

7. Ikura (Salmon Roe)

Seasoned salmon eggs are pickled in soy sauce to make this dish.

And why do we eat it?

ikura

Yes, you have guessed it right.

It is another dish eaten for fertility.

8. Kohaku Kamaboko (Red and White Fish Cake)

You will find red and white colors in the Japanese flag, and in our culture, these two are auspicious colors that are related to good fortune and celebration.

So, now you might have guessed why we include red and white in this Japanese new year cake.

Anyway, it is made of cured surimi paste (fish paste) and then dyed partially with pink color which is almost close to red. You can also present it in an alternating color pattern.

kohaku kamaboko

This fish cake is mostly shaped like a half-moon in osechi, which epitomizes the first sunrise of the new year.

You might not know that anything first of the new year gets substantial importance in our country, and that’s why we love to view the very first sunrise of the year as well.

9. Kamaboko Fish Cake with Salmon Roe

If you have kamaboko fish cake ready, this dish will be the easiest one to prepare.

Simply make some small slashes across the kamaboko, stuff shiso leaf in it, and then top with golden salmon roe.

This dish will be an impressive addition to your osechi ryori with its elegant presentation.

10. Kohaku Namasu (Daikon and Carrot Salad)

Namasu is another osechi dish of daikon (radish) and carrot salad with the word Kohaku in it.

The salad is simply pickled in sweetened vinegar, and namasu is ready for you.

kohaku namasu

Daikon and carrot resemble white and red colors, respectively. So, this dish also represents the celebratory colors of the Japanese new year, like Kohaku kamaboko.

11. Chikuzenni or Nishime (Simmered Chicken & Vegetables)

Chicken, root vegetables, and konnyaku are cut into different fancy shapes and then simmered in flavorful dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. That’s it.

chikuzenni

Though it is one of the osechi dishes served on new year’s day, we like to enjoy it on typical days as well. Actually, it is the Nimono (Japanese simmered dish) that my whole family admires.

Chikuzenni is also a popular side dish for bento as you can make it in advance, which still tastes good at room temperature.

12. Ebi (Simmered Shrimp)

To add bright color and a delicious savory flavor to your osechi ryori, you can prepare this tasty dish for new year’s day.

It is not only a treat to your tummy but also to the eyes. In fact, they are the highlight of the nicely presented jubako box.

ebi

Shrimps are cooked in dashi soy sauce and soaked overnight to prepare this dish.

Ebi or shrimp resembles the lean of an older person, and the antenna reflects the long beard. Therefore, we Japanese eat it on the New Year as a wish for long life.

13. Su Renkon (Pickled Lotus Root)

If you want to face fewer obstacles and challenges in the coming year, be sure to include renkon in your Japanese new year food box.

Okay, let me clear it.

su renkon

As lotus root has individual holes in it, it is eaten with a wish for a happy future without problems or at the very least to see those interferences clearly ahead of time.

Pickled lotus roots are marinated in sweet vinegar sauce to make su renkon. It is one of the famous Japanese new year food.

14. Tataki Gobo (Pounded Burdock Root with Sesame Sauce)

Gobo or burdock root is well-known for its strong roots that are difficult to cut down.

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You can come across a dish prepared with these roots in osechi ryori, which indicates a life of stability with both physical and inner strength.

tataki gobo

To prepare the dish, burdock roots are pounded, then boiled and simmered in a dashi and soy sauce broth, and dressed in a sesame sauce.

15. Salmon Kombu Roll

Another traditional Japanese dish for the new year is salmon kombu roll, which is eaten to be rewarded with perennial youth and long life.

Flavorful salmon is rolled up in kombu (seaweed) and then tied with kanpyo (gourd strips).

salmon kombu roll

While looking alluring at the same time, this dish is so delicious that you may end up devouring more than one of these exquisite appetizers.

16. Yellowtail Teriyaki or or Buri no Teriyaki

Our new year meal remains incomplete until we try this classic Japanese dish. It is a popular fish platter in Japan that we love to enjoy as a main dish on new year’s day.

yellowtail teriyaki

With the perfect glaze of teriyaki sauce, this platter is simply elegant and worth tasting.

17. Kuwai (Arrowhead Tuber)

Japan is such a country where staying in one company from graduation to retirement as well as limiting job movement is still considered ideal.

Therefore, if you are a career-oriented person, you shouldn’t miss this dish as kuwai is said to exemplify a long and steady career.

It is an aquatic plant, which is also known as the Sagittaria plant. It produces an edible tuber with a single long root.

raw kuwai

Kuwai is firstly peeled and then simmered in a broth of sugar, dashi, soy sauce, and mirin.

18. Satoimo (Taro Root)

Satoimo is another osechi dish that shares similar significance for a growing family like kazunoko and ikura.

Satoimo or taro root has a main tuber with many other small tubers grown off it, which symbolizes offspring.

cooked satoimo

It is generally simmered in dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar.

Well, by this time, I have discussed the most popular and common dishes of the Japanese new year meal. However, osechi ryori may contain other ingredients and platters as well.

Apart from the mentioned ones, roast beef is an increasingly popular dish of the Japanese new year, which is adding a new dimension to osechi ryori boxes.

So, we eat osechi cuisine for the first three days of the new year, but the Japanese new year food tradition has one more dish to round out the celebrations.

January 11th: Kagami Mochi

Various auspicious objects are used for decorative purposes as part of the new year celebrations to bring good luck. One of them is kagami mochi.

It is made with two rice cakes (mochi) of two different sizes. The smaller one is placed on the larger one and then topped with daidai (bitter Japanese orange), which is considered a good sign. If you write this using different characters, it can be translated as generation to generation.

kagami mochi

The two rice cakes symbolize the past year and the coming year, while the orange represents the continuation of the family over the years.

The whole thing is placed in the kamidana or the elevated miniature Shinto shrine in homes and businesses.

The stacked mochis resemble the copper round mirror, also known as kagami which was used during the Muromachi period (approximately 1336-1573).

Hence, the name of the decoration is kagami mochi.

On the 2nd Saturday or Sunday in January or on January 11th, a ritual known as kagami-biraki (“the opening of the mirror”) is performed, where the kagami mochi are split by either hand or hammer.

And then it is cooked and eaten with sweet red beans. You should never use a knife, as that would indicate the severance of family ties.

The new year celebration in Japan becomes completed with this ritual.

I have nothing more to let you know. Let’s wrap it up here.

Conclusion

After knowing about the Japanese new year food traditions, if you feel interested in being a part of it, then you can come to Japan on new year’s eve to relish the color of this celebration.

And you shouldn’t miss these delicious and savory dishes while being in Japan at this time, as you won’t find these platters anywhere outside Japan.