January 3, 2011

Hunting for traditional Japanese osechi foods at New Year


Nippon Club Chef Hideki Yasuoka's osechi box

For a fun assignment, I spent part of last week on the hunt for Japanese New Year’s osechi box sets. Osechi refers to the various traditional Japanese New Year dishes that expats pine for when the end of the year rolls around. There’s always konbu-maki (seaweed rolls tied with strips of gourd), kamaboko (fish cakes), and soy-simmered tazukuri (anchovies), among many other dishes. Way back when, Japanese women spent days preparing these dishes, to be eaten by the family and guests who dropped by during the three-day celebration of the New Year. In order not to have to cook during this festive period, and to ensure the food stayed fresh (these were pre-refrigeration days), dishes were highly salted, and usually quite sweet as well.

Today, many young people would rather not eat the traditional foods, preferring freshly made sushi, sashimi or western food instead. Since supermarkets, department stores and restaurants all make and sell osechi boxes, the number of home cooks who prepare the whole feast from A to Z has diminished as well.There are still plenty of people who crave osechi, it seems, even if they don't want to go through the laborious process of making the dishes themselves. I saw this House of Japan item reporting strong sales in high-end osechi boxes in Tokyo this year, ranging in price from 30,000 to 205,000 yen (about $370 to $2,500).

Here in Manhattan, I discovered that several restaurants and Japanese grocery stores, including East, Restaurant Nippon and Katagiri (the oldest Japanese grocery store in the U.S.),sell osechi boxes to go. Hakubai restaurant in the Kitano Hotel serves a New Year osechi meal to customers in its dining room.

Plastic versions of New Year's kagami mochi (rice cakes) for sale at Katagiri

One treat was viewing and sampling the artistic osechi boxes created by chef Hideki Yasuoka of the members-only Nippon Club. I’ll let my picture of Chef Yasuoka's delicious masterpiece (above) do the talking for now. If you want to read the full account, you’ll have to wait a year, when my Edible Manhattan story on osechi appears, with much better photos by Max Flatow.