A question raised at a recent Toastmasters meeting was “How do you sell Osechi (celebratory New Year's food specialties) if you are an Osechi salesman?"
Hmmm, a very good question. I was out of the country for many years. I felt guilty seeing my wife struggling to prepare Osechi when materials were hard to obtain.
Osechi should represent UNESCO approved Japanese Washoku dietary culture. If you explore Osechi, you could get the essence and soul of Washoku. However, the weight is more on tradition and rituals, all dishes necessarily devoted to auspicious expectations. In other words, materials and seasonings are selective consisting of kelp, abalone, sea urchin, herring-roe, prawn, fish paste, chestnut, lotus root, burdock, black bean and mixed veggies.
As a Noh song student once, I’m familiar with the word “Sechie” from the famous “Tsuru Kame, Crane & Tortoise” song. Sechi or Setsu taking off honorific O, is seasonal divide days, such as 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 5-5, 9-9. The Imperial Court started “Sechie”, religious rituals during the Nara period, during the 8th Century, for prayers and thanksgiving for the season’s harvest and foods found from the mountains and sea. As time passed, this celebration permeated into the Samurai class in Kamakura and Kyoto and into the Edo period, down to the general public, with particular emphasis on 1-1, the New Year’s celebration.
The recipe and ingredients of Osechi dishes vary a little by district but basically they are the same, handed down for generations. They should feature proactive and forward looking life values, such as happiness and fortune, prosperity and wealth, success and promotion, security of property, health and longevity, perpetuation of descendants, strong family bond and solidarity, all authentically cooked and served in a fancy lacquer Jubako, the multi-layered boxes. The Japanese believe that luck comes in multitude by box layering.
I used to see three layers, but learned that four layers are formal and often five layers (the top often left empty to beckon future happiness), depending on circumstances. Normally, the festive and sake companion dishes are at the bottom, grilled, stewed, or vinegared side dishes in the second, sea or river produce in the third, mountain produce in the fourth. Arrival of these boxes are rather new, right after World War II perhaps with advertising commercials from department stores.
Today, I saw the relevant newspaper survey polls; 52% yes, 48% no, to the question - "Do you prepare Osechi?" Now those who said "no" were questioned "why". 42% of men and 26% of women answered "felt no need to make it special even for the New Year." Hmmm, again! They are from a different generation.
Osechi had a great meaning when shops were all closed for 10 days or so, and when fridges were novelties in most homes. Housewives made everything by hand, making them to last longer; baking and adding vinegar. Now they are nostalgic scenes of the past, because ready-made Osechi is available at nearby convenience stores. I understand the competitions had become keener with the participation of the Post Office sales force.
With the increase of part-time laborers, many stores are open now even during New Year's holidays. There are people who don’t take holidays. It means households need not prepare preserved foods for the New Year celebrations any more.
I hope I have given you some 'food for thought' with New Year's Day approaching quickly.