Ozoni – Good Food for Good Luck – Ancient Shinto Magic in Modern Japanese Life
The ex-pat life delivers “glicken” by the truckload. Local holidays back that truckload up and dump it right at your door.
In Japan, that means not only eating the sacred New Years dishes of “o-zoni” and “o-sechi,” but opening up the inside scoop on these foods that take you back to ancient sympathetic magic based in Shinto.
First, let’s take a step back.
New Years in Japan holds the same importance as family oriented holidays like Christmas for many people in the West. Family members relocated far away for work return home. Typically New Years is a three day holiday in Japan. In the past, most businesses and shops would shut down for the time around New Years. For better or worse, the modern commercial convenience culture provides ample opportunity to take advantage of several days off of work for the pilgrimage to… shopping malls.
But before you dash out the door to beat every other person who got “o-toshi-dama”* to the “baaagain” – New Years sales – you get to partake in the pleasure of “o-zoni,” a traditional New Years soup whose ingredients are not only steeped in a delicate broth, but tradition and meaning as well, stretching back to the days of deep sympathetic magic of ancient Shinto.
Japan consists of many regions with unique identities. While it may be difficult for outsiders to appreciate the difference in one udon broth to another from various regions, “o-zoni” is much easier to distinguish.
For example, the Osaka region has it’s own spin on “o-zoni” that’s not even called “o-zoni” but “o-zenzai.” (EDIT: There is a unique Osaka “o-zoni” as well.)
In your bowl of “o-zenzai” you’ll find small red beans (azuki) in a thick sweet sugar syrup. Small “mochi” balls – rice cake – float in the syrup. Now, tasting red beans in sugar can be a shock for first timers **. It does grow on you, though. Like I said, these traditional foods have deep meaning. Mochi represent wealth and prosperity, as do the red beans and sugar syrup. In less prosperous times, these commodities were so expensive that the only time regular folk could afford them was after saving for the New Years festivities.
If you’re not in Osaka, or you’re staying with a family who has its roots in another region, you’ll encounter different versions of “o-zoni.”
From Kagoshima, you’ll encounter a broth made of dried, shaved flying fish and yellow tail. Chicken, napa cabbage, shrimp, and mochi. Each ingredient carries a meaning.
Flying fish protects you from bad luck, while yellow tail gives you luck as you continue to mature.
Chicken gives you the power to work fast – as chickens run quickly. Napa cabbage represents wealth and money. Shrimp ensures you will enjoy a long life – as shrimp are bent over like old people.
From the Niigata region, you will find a white miso and soy sauce broth “o-zoni.” This soup contains chicken, carrots, burdock, spinach, small sliced fish cakes, and large “mochi” in the bottom.
And you’d be a bit remiss if you didn’t chomp down the masterly crafted “o-sechi.”
Each little compartment of the “o-sechi bento” – lunch box – holds your fortune as well…
But that is a story for another time…
* O-tosih-dama is a gift of money typically given to people under 20, the age of “adulthood” in Japan.
** Imagine the shock of having say, refried beans served thick with sugary syrup as a dessert, and you’ll understand the reaction people in Japan have when you first describe rice pudding – sweet with cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey.
I relied on first-hand interviews with Japanese natives for the information in this article. You’ll no doubt find supporting as well as conflicting accounts if you search online, as I did. I’m just reporting what I learned from talking to people while living in Japan.
Learn how to make your own “o-zoni” (sites in English):