Japanese-Americans Welcome the New Year With a Special Feast That Can Take Weeks to Prepare

Photo credit: Max Flatow
Photo credit: Max Flatow

In the waning days of December in the small, hot kitchen of East Restaurant in Kips Bay, chef Syozo Tsurunaga is directing a small army of assistants as they prepare the annual New Year’s feast known as osechi ryori.

In one corner, three hygienically capped workers de-vein prawns with surgical-looking metal skewers. In another, two young Japanese men fill small square plastic compartments with julienned and vinegared daikon and small candied anchovies. A spiky-topped, bright-green sheet of faux grass, the kind that sprouts from sushi platters around the globe, neatly separates the daikon and fish. A slice of lemon completes this mini tableau, one of nine modules that will make up a larger edible still life encased in a luxury jyubako, similar to a bento box.

Chef Tsurunaga, who has overseen this New Year’s production at East for the past 25 years, is everywhere: here tossing the gray, de-veined prawns into the deep fryer and pulling out coral-colored beauties; there arranging fat slices of bright-yellow datemaki (cooked egg and shrimp paste, rolled pinwheel style) next to kinton (sweet potato puree), separated by their own border of plastic grass. Beginning on December 22 each year, Chef Tsurunaga devotes 10 days to prepare the boxes, preordered mostly by expatriate Japanese customers throughout the tristate area. This year 50 $200 boxes will be ready for pickup on December 31 to be eaten at home on New Year’s Day. The tireless chef starts the labor-intensive process solo, and at about the fifth day, his team of seven or eight helpers joins him for the final push. “It’s always just in time,” he says.

The beehive of activity in East’s kitchen is a microcosm of what is happening in Japan—and in Japanese communities around the globe—during the days leading up to the country’s biggest holi- day of the year. Since an 1873 modernization, oshogatsu, as the New Year’s festival is known, has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar on January 1, rather than during its original date at the beginning of the lunar calendar year.

Oshogatsu preparations begin with a thorough housecleaning, segue into boisterous bōnenkai, or year-end parties, packing for holiday travels home or shopping for New Year’s Day osechi feasts. On New Year’s Eve, families share the year-end ritual of eating toshikoshi soba to bring good luck and long life. New Year’s Day often dawns bright and clear, and may involve a visit to the local temple to pray for good fortune and happiness in the New Year. It is an intensely social time, when families visit friends and relatives and receive guests calling with New Year’s good wishes, and children eagerly anticipate the ritual gift of cash-stuffed envelopes, or otoshidama.

Many Japanese, whether at home or abroad, feel the day would not be complete without at least some components of the highly scripted and elaborate osechi meal. Yet fewer and fewer Japanese have the interest or know-how to prepare such a repast (the conjuring up of which makes Christmas dinner with all the trimmings look like a snap) from scratch anymore. What has evolved in Manhattan, as in Japan, is the common practice of either ordering an osechi box from a Japanese grocery store or restaurant, or buying some prepared dishes and then supplementing those with a few home-cooked items. The price for an osechi box can vary widely; in Tokyo, luxury boxes created by top chefs or sold in the enormous basement food halls of Japan’s best department stores can fetch more than 200,000 yen—more than $2,500. Japanese expatriate and Upper West Side resident Emiko Sakakihara says, “It’s sad that people think department store osechi is the real taste. We don’t have family taste anymore. I used to think my mother’s kuromame (sweet soy-simmered black soybeans) were the best; they had no wrinkles and they just melted in your mouth. It wasn’t the same when you visited other people’s homes, because every family had its own taste.”

Back in the focused kitchen of East Restaurant, four helpers carefully put together an arrangement of alternating pink and white kamaboko slices, the smooth half-circles of fish cake that are an indispensable component of every osechi jūbako (box). Nearby, white plastic tubs filled with other osechi ingredients wait to play their part in this work-in-progress: pieces of cooked taro shaped into neat little balls; dried shiitake plumping in a broth of soy, mirin, sugar and sake; slices of bamboo shoots and carrot segments that have been carved into the shape of plum blossoms. The aesthetics of osechi—visible in the intricately sculpted vegetables and careful color juxtapositions—are as important as its taste, a satisfying blend of the salty, the sweet and the umami-filled (umami is the fifth basic taste, embodying a deep, meaty, savory quality). Many elements of the traditional osechi canon are laden with symbolic meaning, says Tsurunaga. Sea bream, known as tai in Japan, is a good luck symbol based on a pun: “tai” echoes “omedetai,” meaning “something worth congratulations.” The seasoned kazunoko (herring roe) represents fertility; plump black kuromame call forth good health, and the red and white combination seen in kamaboko arrangements and in kohaku namasu (daikon and carrot salad) are the superpowers of celebratory colors, invoking respect for ancestors, good health, detoxi-fication and purity. The tiny dried sardines or anchovies simmered in sweet soy, tazukuri, represent prayers for a good harvest.

Osechi is practical as well as symbolic. In days gone by, homemakers prepared the entire feast in advance to allow them to relax during the three-day celebratory period—hence the highly salted and sugared dishes that would not spoil. Refrigeration has put an end to those days, and many health-conscious Japanese want to get away from high-salt and -sugar foods. Their symbolic overtones are also lost on some younger Japanese who would rather have fresh foods, such as sushi and sashimi.

Still, the tug of nostalgia and tradition are strong, even more so among expatriate Japanese living in Manhattan, who lack the perennial access to many of these special foods enjoyed by Japanese back home. “Frozen osechi is being sold year-round in Japan,” says Tsurunaga, “so fewer people are really pleased to eat it at New Year’s.” He grew up in Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture on the western island of Kyushu, and recalls how his mother took five days to prepare the family osechi feast. “When I’m cooking, I’m remembering my mother’s flavors as I go,” he says.

In Manhattan, in addition to East Restaurant, osechi boxes are available from Nippon Restaurant (155 East 52nd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.). They are also available to purchase at Manhattan Japanese grocers Katagiri (224 East 59th Street, between Second and Third Avenues) and Sunrise Mart (4 Stuyvesant Street, at Third Avenue; 494 Broome Street, near West Broadway). These markets gird for the yearly onslaught of customers in the week leading up to New Year’s Day, stocking up with oshogatsu ingredients and special decorative items for the home. At Katagiri, which has been in business since 1907 and claims to be the oldest Japanese grocery store in the United States, prepared osechi jyubako boxes imported from Tokyo are available in three sizes at a range of prices. (Last year’s ran from $65 to $170.) For those who like to assemble their own meal, former manager Hiroto Tanaka says the most popular ingredients last year were kamaboko, datemaki, kuromame, tazukuri and kazunoko. Katagiri imports more expensive fresh products and fewer of the usual frozen brands for New Year’s shoppers, and offers pre-made packs of onishime, the dish of sweet, soy-simmered root vegetables that is often served on New Year’s Day. Customers drive in from as far as Boston, spending on average about $500 for their New Year’s foods, and as much as $2,000. “More people are buying prepared foods, observes Tanaka. “People can’t cook, or maybe they are less interested these days.”

Roving the aisles are two Japanese expatriates, Sakakihara and Harumi Furuta, both Upper West Side residents and United Airlines flight attendants. Furuta says she always makes her own tazukuri “because it’s really easy to make, it tastes better than store-bought, there are no preservatives and it’s cheaper.” She also makes onishime and ozoni, the beloved New Year’s soup of chicken, bonito, or miso broth and toasted mochi rice cakes, usually embellished with kamaboko, vegetables, some type of greens and chicken. “My [American-born] husband doesn’t want to eat it, but I force him,” says a semi-serious Furuta. “He eats it to be polite.” Furuta also makes a vinegared salad of daikon, carrots and boiled octopus. Both Furuta and Sakakihara make toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve. When they visited family in Japan during the New Year’s holiday, recalls Furuta, her husband “couldn’t understand the concept of waking up and drinking saké and eating all day long.”

Sakakihara buys her ajitsuke kazunoko (flavored herring roe) at Katagiri but finds its marinade too sweet. She corrects its flavor with a little light soy sauce, sake and bonito flakes. If her flight schedule permits, she will pick up some regional osechi dishes from her hometown of Kobe, such as kizushi (vinegared mackerel). Sakakihara recalls how her mother used to make this dish at home in Japan, usually beginning her osechi cooking three or four days before the New Year. On New Year’s morning her mother arose before the rest of the family to make ozoni in the Kansai region style, with white miso on the first day, then changing to a clear soup the next day. Local style also dictated fish in this traditional soup as well as chicken, perhaps buri (a type of yellowtail) one day, and salmon the next.

No matter how busy she is, Sakakihara says she feels something would be missing if she didn’t prepare an annual osechi meal. “There are so many memories it brings back,” she says. “The family getting together, dressing up in kimono to visit the shrine, kids teasing each other, playing karuta [a traditional Japanese card game], sitting around the kotatsu [a low, quilt-draped table with a heating source underneath to keep legs and feet warm], watching New Year’s programs on TV, and visitors coming in and out to pay their respects.”

I found another artist of the osechi box at the Nippon Club on 57th Street, a gathering place for Japanese corporate executives and their families as well as those interested in Japanese culture. Chef Hideki Yasuoka sources top-quality ingredients, sculpts them into cunning likenesses of various flora and fauna, and cooks them with a light, sure touch that has made him a prized asset among picky expat club members. Each tier of these deluxe boxes is double-layered with regional specialties: the chef sources fresh kamaboko and datemaki from Shizuoka prefecture and Tamba black soybeans from Hyogo Prefecture. His miso-marinated kazunoko and salmon-stuffed kombumaki (simmered sheets of kelp rolled tightly and tied with a strip of flavored gourd) are specialties from Hokkaido. As always, these are preordered to be eaten at home on New Year’s Day.

Chef Yasuoka does his salmon yuan-yaki style, using a traditional teriyaki sauce that dates back to its inventor, an 18th-century monk and tea master. The chef simmers ayu (sweetfish) in a soy and saké mixture for four hours until it nearly dissolves in your mouth, bones and all. He scores squid so it curls up and resembles a flower, cuts his vinegared renkon (lotus root) slices to mimic snowflakes, and shapes his snow peas into arrows. Yasuoka’s intricately carved and scored turtles are actually bamboo shoots, their neutral color offset by bright lemon halves filled with salmon roe. Looking at one of his gorgeous boxes is a little like looking at a delicately painted 16th-century still life on a Japanese folding screen, all gilt and sumptuousness, yet an obviously artificial recreation of the natural world. It’s too bad the approximately 80 osechi boxes he makes—and access to Yasuoka’s dining room—are available to Nippon Club members only. (For prices on that or the osechi, contact the club’s membership department.)

Real estate developer Toshiya Suganuma has been ordering his three-tier osechi box from the Nippon Club for seven years now, and makes it the centerpiece of his New Year’s Day party for half a dozen friends. “They don’t come to see me, but for this,” he jokes, motioning to his box. “They make sure I order it every year.”

For the chefs of these edible extravaganzas, all celebration is put on hold until the final snow pea garnish has been placed. “When the last box is picked up on December 31,” says Chef Yasuoka, “I feel like, ‘At last, I can greet the New Year!’”

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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