Looking for a little luck this year? Ring in the new year with some of Japan’s most savoury, celebratory foods.
Good food, good fortune, good future
Looking ahead to a new year
Out with the old and in with the new—it’s time for a fresh start! The new year is upon us, and whether you’re heading out for a night on the town, planning to enjoy a quiet gathering with loved ones or skipping the countdown in favour of a good night’s rest, the passing of a new year is a time to pause and reflect on the year behind while looking forward to the one ahead. Many Canadians set New Year’s resolutions as a way to identify goals and prepare for the future, and a similar tradition is followed in Japan. Ichinen no kei ha gantan ni ari (一年の計は元旦にあり) is a phrase to explain that New Year’s Day is the day to plan for the rest of year. Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be. For many Japanese, it’s also a time of year to be mindful of superstitions, otherwise known as engi (縁起). There are things you can do to keep bad luck away, including enjoying delicious osechi-ryōri (おせち料理), lucky foods eaten to celebrate the beginning of the year.
The tastiest way to improve your luck
Osechi-ryōri—or osechi for short—originally meant festival food. Traditionally, the word “festival” refers to five festivals celebrated throughout the year, collective- ly known as gosekku (五節句). These days, however, the term osechi refers mainly to new year food. Food is an integral part of Japanese culture and folklore; according to superstition, it is bad luck to cook meals within the first three days of the new year—with zōni (雑煮) being an exception. Osechi are prepared in advance at the end of the previous year to avoid a troubled fate, but in more recent years, osechi can be purchased at various grocery and convenience stores (perfect for those who are superstitious but find themselves unlucky in the kitchen!). Osechi have adapted and changed over the years, starting as humble meals comprised of boiled vegetables and progressing all the way to the present day wherein a wide variety of symbolic treats are represented. Each osechi contains ingredients that vary by prefectures and districts, and there are even Western-or Chinese-style osechi for those who wish to stray from convention and try something a little different. Good luck never tasted so good!
But if we’re referring to osechi must-haves, we’re talking about jyubako (重箱). The literal translation of jyubako (“stacked box”) is an accurate description of its appearance. These beautiful and elegant compart- mentalized boxes are similar to bento boxes except that they have multiple tiers that are nested and stacked with a variety of treats. Symbolically, these boxes represent fuku wo kasaneru (福を重ねる, meaning “piling up fortune”) or medetasa ga kasanaru (めでたさが重なる, meaning “piling up happiness”). Traditionally a jyubako contains four levels, but these days it’s likely only to be three unless a large family is celebrating together. Each level carries its own significance and purpose, and the levels don’t necessarily have to be enjoyed in sequence.
Level one: Snacks
The first level is called iwai-zakana (祝い肴 or celebratory food) and kuchitori (口取り or hors d’oeuvre). This level contains savoury snacks which are meant to be served with otoso (お屠蘇), a sake typically enjoyed during New Year’s celebrations. Items on this level include black soybeans as a wish for good health, chestnut gold mash for wealth and prosperity, kombu rolls for happiness, datemaki (a sweet rolled omelette) for knowledge and wisdom, tazukuri for a good harvest season and fish cakes for good luck.
Level two: Meat and fish
Traditionally, the second level contains sunomono (酢の物), pickled food representing fortune from the mountains, and may also include yakimono (焼き物), grilled food representing fortune from the sea. This level is the equivalent to the “main course” of the jyubako and includes herring roe for prosperity, pickled lotus for a clear focus on the future, amberjack for fertility, grilled sea bream to celebrate achievements and congratulations, pounded burdock for a stable future and grilled prawns for a long life.
Level three: Vegetables
Balance is key to jyubako, and vegetables play an important role in any meal. The third level of jyubako is dedicated to boiled vegetables and is called nimono (煮物). Assorted seasonal vegetables or chikuzen-ni (筑前煮) are the main feature and are meant to represent a happy growing family. Taro, burdock root, lotus root and peas are some of the delicious vegetables waiting to be savoured at this level.
Aside from osechi, zōni is another popular dish at the turning of the new year. Zōni is a soup broth and, depending on the prefecture or district, it can have a base of fish, chicken, mushrooms, vegetables, miso or anything in between. Enjoying zōni is not limited to New Year’s Day—this scrumptious dish is perfect for any time of the year.
What matters most
While the many elements of osechi may seem overwhelming at first, they are really just a blueprint for you to customize in a way that best suits your New Year’s celebration. Above all, consuming osechi is more than just a symbolic gesture for good fortune—it’s a way to enjoy delicious food with those you care about most. And you don’t need to be superstitious to appreciate time with family and friends over a good meal.
Getting a taste for yourself
Now that you’ve mastered the intricacies of Japanese New Year’s food, the only thing left is to get your tastebuds in on the action. But don’t worry, there’s no need to go looking for your passport! Some of Toronto’s Japanese restaurants will be offering their own takes on osechi to help you ring in 2016. Check out some of the offerings on the next page—just make sure to plan ahead so that you don’t miss out on your chance to dig in. Bon appétit … and Happy New Year!
Kagami-mochi (鏡もち) is another new year staple. Consisting of two stacked mochi with a bitter orange placed on top, kagami-mochi is said
to represent the passing and coming years, the human heart, yin and yang or the sun and the moon. The bitter orange is said to symbolize the growth of a family over generations.
Have your New Year’s feast right here in the city
At Nakamori, you can kick off your new year with a three-storey bento box that offers up both luxury and creativity. You’ll receive a beautiful assortment of Japanese dishes, including a rich zōni featuring bacon -wrapped mochi and flavours of mussel and coriander. Finally, your feast will conclude with some delicious dessert.
The New Year’s meal will be available from Saturday, Jan. 2, until Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016. Reservations are required. New Year’s meals are limited in quantity (10 per day).
Price: Full two-person meal $120
Hours: (Lunch) Tues–Fri 11:30 am–2 pm • (Dinner) Tues–Sat 5:30 pm–9:30 pm
Closed on New Year’s Day
Contact: 2803 Eglinton Ave. E., Toronto • 416-265-7111 • www.nakamori.ca
Sushi Bar Sushiya
Some truly Japanese tastes will be offered at Sushi Bar Sushiya this new year, including zōni made with bonito stock, bountiful vegetables and a festive scattering of gold leaf. Meanwhile, the homemade osechi plate will provide a great sampling of traditional flavours, from candied chestnuts to rolled omelette to an assortment of fresh seafood.
The New Year’s menu will be available from Saturday, Jan. 2, to Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. New Year’s dishes are limited in quantity (10 per day).
Price: Zōni $6.50 • Osechi plate $13.50
Hours: Thu–Mon 5:30 pm–12 am (Last order 11 pm) • Closed on New Year’s Day
Contact: 193 Carlton St., Toronto • 647-352-9456 • www.zakkushi.com/sushiya