Every year, our family celebrates the New Year by preparing osechi-ryori, the traditional holiday food served in Japan and continued here in America by Japanese immigrants. My mother used to spend two whole days before the new year to make all the goodies, as did my wife’s family. There are certain dishes that have come to characterize osechi over the years. Being third generation Japanese-Americans, we no longer make some either because of their effort to make or because we’ve long since lost an appetite for them. Still, we are trying to make a few that we remember eating when we were much younger, thanks to cookbooks and the internet, a sort of mini-revival, you might say. Then, there are other dishes that are not traditional at all, crossovers as a consequence of living in a cultural melting pot, that sort of mirror our own contemporary family that extends beyond our Japanese roots. Foods like teriyaki chicken, char siu, Chinese salad, wontons and tamales are more of a reflection of where we grew up than where we came from.
And though there are other motifs related to osechi-ryori, we don’t serve the food in traditional lacquer boxes (jubako) nor are we necessarily cognizant of all the symbolism behind the food.
After the food is prepared—and it must be completed before the dawn of the New Year—it is traditionally not stored in the refrigerator but rather kept cold in a larder or a similar place that is sufficiently cool. My father-in-law has a guest room in the backyard that always seems to remain cool, even in warm Southern California weather, and a covered deck at the rear of the house that is adequate on winter nights.
Though my wife and I live in the Seattle area, every year we fly down to Southern California to be with my wife’s family (both my parents and brother have passed away). Osechi is not only about keeping alive a tradition but also about the family making the food together, a communal effort and labor of love that transcend the holiday itself. When we gather round the table, it is to celebrate that we are with each other again and partake of a feast important to us. And, of course, to welcome the New Year.
Our favorite place to buy all the Japanese ingredients is Marukai Market. The one we go to is located in West Covina, though the original store is located in Gardena, which for us is further away. It’s a great place to shop because everything you need is there and the prices are great. Around this time of year, the store is packed with shoppers all there for the same reason as us. Though my father-in-law rarely gives any other store a second thought, on this annual Marukai shopping day he loves to linger and go up and down the aisles, as if seeing everything for the first time. At 96 years of age, he deserves to sit back but instead he gets busy like the rest of us preparing the dishes for our repast.
In a few days, we’ll all begin cooking seriously. Stay tuned.
Update: Apparently, Marukai is re-branding as Tokyo Central. The West Covina store has been completely redesigned inside with a cafeteria-style restaurant in front. There are still some Marukai-named markets in Southern California and elsewhere. The transition strategy or difference between the stores is not clear.