Observing the Japanese New Year’s tradition of osechi ryori has been an important piece of my family’s heritage, but what happens when traditions are forced to change?
At the end of every New Year’s lunch, there were always two things left on my plate: a dull cross section of yellow herring roe (kazunoko, and a dark green roll of kelp (kobumaki).
As a child, I ate the two remaining pieces in quick succession. Despite not generally being a picky eater, I found the foods hard to swallow. First, there was the crunch and pop of the roe between my molars, and then the slimy thickness of the kobumaki sliced between my front teeth – both with their lingering bitter aftertastes. I ate them out of a sense of duty. Like all foods consumed during the Japanese celebration of the new year, they are meant to bring good fortune. The multitude of the fish eggs symbolizes prolific success; the scroll shape of the kobumaki signifies academic success. Naturally, I wanted both.
My mother’s dedication
In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a New Years’ Day without my mother preparing osechi ryori, an assembly of small dishes eaten for good luck on Jan. 1. I have always recognized it as a labor of love. To begin with, the materials have to be purchased weeks in advance. My mother calls ahead to find out when the shipment arrives, because the day the osechi packages arrive at our local Japanese grocery store, a crowd descends on the little shop to claim boxes of ingredients. They always sell out quickly – yellow chestnuts in a sticky sweet paste, firm black kuromame, miniature candied ebi shrimp, white and pink banded kamaboko fishcake.
My mom wakes up before the rest of the family on New Year’s Day to make ozoni soup and nishime with jiggly konnyaku root and lotus. The kitchen warms with the scent of rich dashi and sweet mirin. Sometimes she gives us little tasks to occupy ourselves – slicing vegetables, setting the table, rinsing the decorative blue bowls – but the true heart of the meal she entrusts to no one but herself. My mom cuts carrot slices into flower shapes and parboils snow peas till they turn bright green. At the end of her preparation, she washes out the three lacquer boxes she brought back with her from Japan in the 1990s. Then she decorates. Each piece of the osechi is assembled to fit a colorful aesthetic, delicately airlifted into place by her chopsticks.
The New Years’ celebration is one of the few Japanese traditions my family upholds. It’s because of my mother’s dedication that it perseveres, and I’ve always been grateful for that effort. As I’ve gotten older, I have found myself more and more preoccupied with the idea that one day, it would be my responsibility. I started taking notes on the preparations, paying close attention to the names of the ingredients. I’ve worried about whether or not I could preserve this tradition wholly, whether I would be able to take on such an important task.
Changes to tradition
This year, for the first time, I was faced with the inability to go home for New Years’ Day. I know I am not alone in this. The year 2020 ruptured tradition for so many, and with the omicron variant leading us into 2022, many others are abstaining from their usual celebrations. But I just don’t feel ready to take over for my mother, to start my own version of her tradition.
I have always seen my mother as the anchor for our New Year’s celebrations. Undoubtedly, we would not celebrate without her. But now I understand her situation differently. I imagine her unmoored from her own family and her home traditions, not an anchor but an outpost. One day, I have always known, I will have to take on that responsibility myself. I just didn’t know it would come so quickly.
For many Asian Americans, the traditions our families kept alive have been maintained over generations, preserved with love. But I think part of being Asian American means we inherently end up modifying tradition. My family doesn’t have the opportunity to pound mochi in our backyard with our neighbors, and we can’t gather the aunts, uncles and cousins to hand out shugu-bukuro with crisp bills inside. The traditions I love have already been fitted to our circumstances, adapted for us. And when I take them up myself, they may change even more. I’ve always been afraid of that, of messing it up, losing it. Adjusting our traditions to the circumstances, though, is a sign of the resilience and the respect that we have for our cultures. There should be no shame in that.
As for the kazunoko and kobumaki, my least favorite of the New Years’ rainbow of dishes – I’ve actually acquired a taste for them. The last few years, I’ve had no trouble eating them at all. I still don’t relish the taste, necessarily, but I’ve accepted it. It’s no longer about academic success, or prolific wealth, or about superstition and fortune at all. The tradition itself became the most important thing to honor. I respect the bitter taste, too.
Images via Sarah Yukiko