• Osechi-ryori boxes are prepared in advance to keep everyone fed for three days. (Nobuyuki Ura)Source: Nobuyuki Ura
Food is central to Japanese New Year celebrations, so osechi-ryori is made in advance for when no one should work for the first three days of January.
By
Pilar Mitchell

22 Dec 2020 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2020 - 12:25 PM

In Japan, New Year celebrations begin on the evening of 31 December with a simple bowl of soba noodles in dashi broth and the ringing of a gong.

Nobuyuki Ura, the former head chef of Sushi-e, tells SBS Food, "We eat soba noodles to say thank you for the year. While we're eating, we can hear the monks at the local temple hitting the gong 108 times, from 10pm until midnight.

In Buddhism, it's said that people have 108 undesirable mental states known as kleshnas. Ura-san explains, "The monks hit the gong 108 times to try to remove the passions from the body."

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However, times have changed and many young people now prefer to attend parties rather than stay at home and eat. Although, Ura-san says the father usually determines who can go out.

"If the father is very strict, he will say to the kids, 'you have to stay home and eat noodles with us'. Then everyone sits around a table that has a heater underneath. In the winter it's so cold in Japan. Everyone puts their legs under the warm table and eats hot soup."

On New Year's Eve, some people will go to the temple to pray for good fortune in the coming year.

"You go throw a coin to the shrine, and pray for family, health or growth, or even that your kids get to go to a nice school."

"We eat soba noodles to say thank you for the year."

The next three days are for rest, which is hard earned for whoever spent days preceding New Year preparing the osechi-ryori, traditional Japanese New Year food that dates back to the Heian period.

"It's usually the mum who makes the osechi, but in my family, it was my grandfather. He was a politician, but he loved to make food as a hobby. It's a big reason why I became a chef," he says.

Osechi comes in a partitioned wood box called a juubako, which is similar to a bento box. 

Ura-san's osechi boxes include non-traditional dishes, like duck breast (bottom right).

The boxes come stacked in two or three layers and in theory, should contain enough food to last for the three days of rest.

"For the first three days of the New Year, nobody is working. Even mum is not making food," Ura-san says. "To rest for three days is pretty old-fashioned though. The new generation doesn't care as much. They make toast to eat, or get Maccas, but still on the first day, everyone appreciates the osechi that mum made."

The first dish is always zouni, a clear soup with mochi dumplings, chicken, daikon, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and mitsuba leaves. The remaining dishes are more complex and take a lot of skill and time to make.

"For some people, it's too hard to make osechi, so they buy them at the convenience store, a Japanese restaurant or a nice department store."

Ura-san made osechi for a decade for Sydney's Japanese community, before he took a break. But because expats can't go home this year, he's started again.

"The osechi I make isn't necessarily complicated, but it takes a lot of time. For example, for the miso cod, you cut the fish, put it on salt and marinate in miso for three days. Everything seems to take three days," he says, laughing.

Ura-san's osechi menu draws from his extensive career and includes traditional and non-traditional dishes. "There are lots of vegetables — pumpkin, bamboo shoots, taro potato, shiitake mushroom. Normally people cook them together, but I make 10 different broths so the dishes don't all taste the same."

Zouni is typically the first meal on New Year's Day.

Each dish is supposed to bestow good fortune. Slow-cooked abalone with sake and tamari soy broth is meant to provide a long life. Kingfish wrapped in kelp and simmered in soy sauce gives happiness. Rolls of sweet egg omelette gives knowledge. Marinated herring roe in sweet miso promotes fertility. "Herring roe is one of the most popular osechi dishes in Japan. Many eggs equal to many kids."

Even the colour is important.

"Everything is red and white, which are lucky colours in Japan. Carrot is red, daikon is white, the snapper fish cakes are coloured red and white, the roe is red."

Because the osechi tradition began before refrigeration, and because the dishes have to last for at least the three days of rest, vinegar and salt feature because they cure the food. That means no sashimi. "It's too risky," he says.

While many younger Japanese people don't consider osechi as important, the tradition is still alive. After a three-year hiatus, Ura-san's osechi boxes are almost sold out.

"Japanese people here, even the young people, they can't go back to Japan this year. And when they think of home, they think of osechi."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @cultofclothesPhotographs by Nobuyuki Ura.

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