As the clock strikes midnight and the new year commences, a seafood delicacy makes its annual appearance across Japan.
Ask people from a range of cultures and many will affirm the importance of the food one consumes on New Year’s Day. In Spain, for instance, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight, each one representing a month of the coming year. Italians opt for pork and lentils, a meal signifying wishes for wealth and prosperity. And in some countries, lobster is fervently avoided on the first day of the year—it walks backwards, and therefore represents looking back rather than forward.
In Japan, kazunoko is the New Year’s Day ingredient of choice. Kazunoko or herring roe—tightly packed bundles of eggs shaped like pieces of fish—is one of three main celebratory dishes that make up osechi ryori, Japan’s traditional New Year’s Day feast. Together with kuromame (sweet black beans) and tazukuri (sardines cooked in soy sauce and sugar), kazunoko is enjoyed on the first day of the year as much for its symbolism as for its taste. Literally translating to “numerous off-spring,” kazunoko represents the wish for familial prosperity in the year to come. Along the same lines, kuromame signifies the hope for continued good health while tazukuri, which translates to “making a rice field,” represents the wish for an abundant harvest in the new year.
Long considered a delicacy fit for royalty, kazunoko as a salty, crunchy snack dates back to sixteenth-century Japan, when it was first recorded in official documents as a gift received by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru. Abundant for years in the waters of Hokkaido, the country’s herring population was nearly wiped out by over-fishing practices in the decades following World War II. Today, much of Japan’s kazunoko supply is imported from countries like Canada, making it an expensive luxury item to be savoured on special occasions. In fact, kazunoko is so rare that it tends to appear in Japanese supermarkets only when December has begun and the end of the year is approaching.
So, it’s a culturally important and beloved holiday must-have—but how does kazunoko actually taste? Well, the texture (firm and satisfyingly crunchy) is arguably more enjoyable than the flavour (salty and fishy). Typically eaten raw as a side dish or incorporated into a larger meal, herring roe has a knack for absorbing marinade flavours, making its preparation flexible and customizable. It is recommended that kazunoko be soaked in water for half a day to draw out excess salt before having its membrane removed and being marinated overnight in a dashi broth consisting of katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes), sometimes with kombu (kelp), as well as sake and soy sauce—with an optional pinch of sugar to sweeten the deal. The next day, dice the roe into bite-sized pieces and enjoy it within a few days, preferably on New Year’s Day itself. That is … if you’re hoping for “numerous offspring” in the year to come!