Cooking Osechi for New Year’s Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Not Being “Japanese Enough”
I was born in Osaka, Japan, but for most of my life I’ve lived between Japan and Minnesota. Like other biracial people with a similar background, I grew up being Japanese in a piecemeal way — learning and loving certain elements, like the language and literature from my mother and Japanese family — while never encountering other key aspects of Japanese culture. Cooking, to the shame of my birth city, was my cultural Achilles heel. While I could easily make my way around the best Japanese restaurants in Minnesota or eat twice my weight while in Osaka, I didn’t really know how these dishes were made or what went into them. This lack of culinary understanding made me feel like a clueless tourist in my own culture.
The New Year, in particular, is an important celebration in Japan. A quick online search for おせち料理 (osechi ryōri, or the traditional New Year’s meal eaten on New Year’s morning) calls up a dizzying array of beautifully plated meals nestled in bright red lacquer boxes. Each box is filled with small servings of brightly swirled fish cakes, rustic vegetables, perfectly cooked shrimp, and a wide array of seafood delicacies. I never grew up eating osechi and, until recently, wouldn’t have been able to tell you what foods were even in these glossy bento boxes.
During my freshman year of college, my aunt came to visit us in Minneapolis from the East Coast for New Year’s. She brought my two young cousins and a plan for osechi. I only caught glimpses of what my mom and aunt were making: root vegetables, bamboo shoots, various types of dried fish and seaweed, and small plastic packets with seasonings and garnishes. It took them the better part of the afternoon and early evening to finish everything.
Even though the spread was beautiful, I already had other plans with my American friends, so I ducked out of the meal after a few quick bites that my mother hastily plated for me. The truth is that I wanted to stay with my family that night. I wanted to pester my aunt about everything she and my mother cooked, and learn about the New Year traditions beyond the greeting I mechanically rattled off each year over long-distance phone calls to family. But another part of me understood this meal was an anomaly. Much of the food used in this type of cooking was inordinately difficult to find where we lived, and the sheer number of dishes needed to cook it “right” was daunting. My mother is a single Japanese parent who has a son with a strict diet and severe food allergies, and at the time I was a college-aged student whose Japanese culinary skills extended to whipping up Vermont Curry and, maybe, some Cup Noodle. I won’t do it right, I remember thinking as I got into my friend’s car, so what’s the point?
For those of us who come from multicultural backgrounds, there is often a fear around the concept of authenticity. It is easy to shy away from reconnecting to things that are culturally yours because of the risk of being exposed as a failure — that your inability to perform culture “properly” will reveal the image you have of yourself, as a mix of multiple cultures, is actually false. Many of us spend a significant portion of our lives trying to live up to an ideal, whether self-constructed or imposed on us from the outside. We spend a lot of time justifying ourselves, putting together a list of traits to prove that we do belong. Yes, I was born in Japan, yes I can speak and read Japanese, yes I do have an advanced degree in Japanese Studies. And any failure to live up to the ideal of being “Japanese enough” — no matter how frivolous — feels like a reinforcement of the things others have said to you about how the nature of your mixed identity means that you ultimately don’t belong anywhere.
Then, in 2019, I got another chance at learning about osechi. As luck would have it, my aunt’s children were now college-aged themselves, living a world away in Japan. So she decided to come celebrate the New Year with me and my mother in Minnesota once again. When she arrived at our house, she hopped out of an Uber with a small suitcase for herself and a comically huge duffel bag full of osechi necessities she brought with her from her most recent business trip to Japan. Seeing osechi deconstructed into manageable packets and pouches made me hopeful. Maybe this was more doable than I thought.
My aunt put me in charge of making 田作り (tazukuri), dried sardines that are cooked in a skillet, then candied in a mix of soy sauce, honey, sake, and sugar with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. The dish represents a successful harvest — the character 田 means rice field, while the latter half 作り means to make, and the small fish were once used to fertilize rice fields to increase crop yields. It was difficult to stop snacking on the tiny candied fish throughout the cooking process — the saltiness and crunch of the sardines offset by their caramelized sweetness made for a compelling finger food to sneak between other cooking duties.
The second dish I was in charge of was namasu, a daikon and carrot dish seasoned with rice vinegar and sugar. Both the daikon and carrot are cut into impossibly thin strips; and the red and white ingredients are intended to mirror the colors used in other Japanese ceremonies and traditions.
Once these two dishes were ready, I helped with the remaining dishes: ozoni, the miso and dashi-based soup with omochi that we eat on the morning of New Year’s Day; kuromame, the large, sweet black soybeans that are just as easy to snack on as the tazukuri; and chicken and various root vegetables for nishime. As I cut the renkon, the lotus root, to put in a large pot with the other nishime ingredients, my aunt explained that the multiple holes that make up the root when cut in cross section represented a clear view of the future.
In lieu of the classic glossy lacquerware, we used an assortment of my mother’s favorite plateware and whatever we had on hand. As we took in our handiwork, I was struck by how good everything looked. There were no fancy flourishes, no intricately constructed dishes — just an array of food I rarely had the chance to enjoy, that I had been a part of cooking. Everything tasted just right.
Unfortunately, none of the auspicious foods we ate at the close of 2019 helped us land an auspicious 2020. But after the final remnants of tazukuri and namasu were gone, I found my reticence to cook had also vanished. A few days after we rang in the New Year together, I set up my planner for the year and included a new goal: Cook more Japanese food. Throughout the year I introduced my white partner to my favorite dishes, helping him get over his skepticism of tofu to the point that it’s now a staple of his diet. My mother and I also make a range of nabemono — hot pot dishes made up of whatever you have on hand and thrown in a big pot — each week, along with other comfort foods like homemade ramen, onigiri, and various iterations of miso-based dishes. And when we can’t get the recipe just right, we make do with what we can find and shrug off any qualms around “authenticity.” Each attempt has been delicious — even when it isn’t perfect.
As I ladle my most recent experiment into a bowl I can’t help but marvel at how food can become so closely tied to our sense of identity and how easily fear can cripple us from grabbing onto something that is ours to hold. While the lotus root didn’t reveal what was to come in the following year, preparing osechi and putting my hands on ingredients I rarely got the chance to touch let me reconnect to a part of myself and my culture that I denied for so long.