Osechi is traditional new year's food, and one of the most significant meals of the year in Japan. Back in the old days, when women were supposed to serve the men in the family, the first three days of the new year was the only time they didn't have to cook.
Although Japanese men were (are) assholes and not much has changed, this tradition actually originates from Shinto-ism when you were not supposed to bother God by cooking during the first three days of the new year. Hence, they made shit load of food at the end of the year to feed the family during those days.
Another reason is that no stores used to be open for the first few days of the year, so we had to have enough food to feed the family.
It's a different day and age now. Many stores have their "Final Sale" on the 31st, and "New Year's Sale" on 1st. There's no need to have a shit load of food prepared for the new year from any practical point of view, but we still follow tradition and make osechi every year.
This year was the first time in many years I stayed home for the new year, so I convinced mama to make osechi with me, and use the very best jyubako (lacquer box) we inherited from my grandmother.
As I mentioned, in the old days, they made A LOT of food for the entire family, so these boxes came in five tiers. In recent years, you rarely see five boxes fully stuffed, and we only used three of them this year.
This is spectacular. Real deal, serious lacquerware, not plastic. The black, the red, very gorgeous looking boxes. On the top is my grandmother's family crest.
There are also a lot of meanings in food we eat in the new year.
For example, you are supposed to eat at least following items.
Kuromame (black beans) - to work diligently. "Mame" means beans as well as be busy.
Kazunoko (herring roe) - to be prosperous
Tataki gobo (beaten burdock) - good harvest
Ebi yakimono (broiled shrimp) - to live until your back stoops (is this a good thing?)
I hate kazunoko, and shrimp (I love shrimp, but not in this form), and me and my mom's rule was, if we don't like it, we don't make it. Everyone in my family loves kazunoko though, so mama prepared it.
We started cooking on the 29th; some my mama made, and the others I did. The process isn't as worthy as the end product, so I'll just show you how I packed it all.
Top left - Koya-tofu (dried tofu reconstituted in soy based dashi).
Top right - Boiled burdock with soy sauce and dashi.
Bottom left - Tataki gobo (with sesame seeds, and soy vinegar sauce).
Middle right - Shiitake mushroom (cooked in soy sugar base).
Bottom right - Boiled takenoko (bamboo shoots cooked in soy base).
They basically taste the same, just different textures. Still good stuff.
Top left - Piri kara konnyaku (spicy konnyaku yam)
Top right - Ko-haku kamaboko (red and white fish cake). Store bought.
Middle - Kuromame (black beans cooked for hours and hours in soy sugar base).
Bottom left - Tamagoyaki (egg omelette). Unusual, but we like it this way better than date maki.
Bottom right - Teriyaki chicken. This might have caused me to dream about going to America.
Top center - Kazunoko.
Middle - Salmon namasu (pickled daikon radish wrapped with salmon);
Namasu (the pink color comes from a type of daikon that is pink inside); Tazukuri (sugared dried sardine). Store bought.
Left - Ham (again, this is Yamamoto tradition, a bit weird, but hey why not?!)
Right - Kuri kinton (mushed sweet potato and chestnuts). Since my mom had made her own kuri no shibu kawa ni (a type of chestnut dessert that is cooked with the skin on, takes forever, but delicious), I mixed them in. It's super sweet, almost like dessert.
Note the aluminum foil covering each item? The lacquer is too expensive to fuck up the coat (it can be fixed, but costs a lot), so mama made me to use this ugly aluminum foil to prevent any liquid from seeping into the box and destroying the lacquer.
By the way, the grouping of each item is also important from a historical point of view, but I ignored it completely. When I was done packing, mama said, "Oh, you didn't put kuromame, kazunoko and tataki gobo in the same box?" Apprently these three MUST be grouped together. I was like, "This is Nu-Ork style."
Since I am from the Kansai region, ozoni (soup with mochi) consists of white miso (very sweet miso) base soup. Each region has very different soup base, such as clear soup in Tokyo, fish stock base in other areas. In my area, we top the soup with aonori (green seaweed).
Osechi making is very time consuming, since you have to make so many different dishes. Plus they are served cold, which isn't ideal. Other than the symbolic, "New Year celebration" part, osechi isn't that good. Yet, I enjoyed making it, especially the joint work with mama was fun.
I will give you one recipe that I made, which is salmon namasu (third box, top left). Namasu is a type of dish where the ingredients are marinated in vinegar. I used to make it with smoked salmon, but there was no smoked salmon in my town (what kind of backward country do I come from!?!), so I bought a salmon fillet.
Salmon fillet skinned (about 1/2 lb)
1. Cure salmon in salt - Put salmon on a bed of salt, then cover the top and side with more salt. Keep it in the fridge for about 2 hours.
2. Cut daikon in thin slices, but not too thin (I don't recommend using mandolin since it gets too thin), then put a bit of salt. Once daikon renders water, wash out the salt and squeeze water out (be careful not to break the slices, since they are rather thick). Set aside.
3. Put equal amounts of water and vinegar in a bowl, and wash salmon in it.
4. Cut two pieces of seaweed that can cover salmon, then loosen them. Cover each side of salmon with seaweed and place it on a bowl.
5. Pour vinegar to cover salmon completely, add sugar (this is totally up to your own taste, put more if you like, put less if you don't). Keep in fridge for about 30 minutes. Turn once.
6. Once salmon is done, take it out of vinegar, and set aside, then add daikon radish in the same vinegar mixture. Add more vinegar/sugar till you like. Make sure all the dikons are submerged in vinegar mixture. I kept it for over night.
7. Thinly slice salmon, and wrap it with a piece of daikon. If you like, you can cut a thin strip of seaweed and tie it.
It's not as complicated as you think. Crunchy from daikon, and nicely cured salmon go very well together. You can definitely serve this at any party.