Eat “Cultural Heritage.” Osechi Japanese New Year’s Food

Tateki Matsuda

January 29, 2023

Last October, American food professionals visited fermented food producers to deepen their knowledge of Japanese fermentation culture during the “Hakko Tourism in Japan” tour campaign. As part of the tour, organizers held a tasting session where guests gave candid advice from the perspective of the American market to food product manufacturers looking to enter the United States market.

We, the Japanese, eat miso soup, pickles, and natto without even thinking about it. Japanese food was registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013 as “Japanese food; the traditional food culture of the Japanese people.” It was proposed as a social custom related to food that embodies the Japanese spirit of “respect for nature.” It was also highly praised for its use of various fresh ingredients, its excellent nutritional balance and healthiness, its presentation of natural beauty and seasonal changes, and its close relationship with annual events such as New Year’s festivals to strengthen the bonds between family and hometown. The fact that Japan has the world’s longest life expectancy, ranking first or second in the world, is also said to have contributed to the high evaluation of Japanese food. Among other things, fermented foods are an essential part of traditional Japanese cuisine, with their careful use of seasonal ingredients and their use as preserved foods.

Each country has natural objects that represent and symbolize the nation. For example, Japan’s national bird is the pheasant, and its national stone is the jade. And, to our surprise, Japan also has a “national fungus,” which is the koji mold (also called koji mold). Essential to traditional Japanese fermented foods such as soy sauce, miso, vinegar, mirin, dried bonito flakes, and sake, koji mold was declared the “national fungus” in 2006. Geographically located in a warm and humid region, Japan receives about twice as much precipitation as the world average. Its temperature and humidity are ideal for fermentation using microbial activity, making Japan one of the world’s leading fermentation countries. Since ancient times, Japanese people have made and consumed various fermented foods such as pickles, miso, soy sauce, and natto daily with the help of microorganisms. As introduced in articles in the past, scientific studies show the benefits of fermented food and a deep relationship between our diet and our health.

How do the Japanese start a New Year?

January is the beginning of the year when we come into contact with traditional events and Japanese food such as osechi cuisine and nanakusa-gayu (rice porridge with seven herbs). It would be a great idea to consciously incorporate Japanese food, fermented foods, and lactic acid bacteria into your diet to stay healthy this year. Japanese New Year is all about family, friends, and food. In particular, osechi cuisine, or traditional Japanese New Year food, is a set of stacked bento boxed meals featuring various seasonal delicacies. Osechi components are chosen based on their health-promoting properties to provide luck and good fortune and bring together nature’s most wholesome dietary elements. There are many different dishes in this particular meal, and each has a meaning or symbolism related to the New Year. For example, one popular food during New Year’s celebrations is ozoni. This soup typically contains mochi (a type of rice cake) and vegetables. The white color of the mochi represents purity and good luck. Another popular dish is kuromame. These beans are a type of black soybean that is considered to be a lucky food. It is said that eating kuromame will bring you good health and prosperity in the New Year. Many other dishes are served during osechi, all with their own special meanings or symbolism. Eating these auspicious foods is an important precursor for health and good luck during the upcoming cycle, but have you ever considered what it may do to your body beyond superficial beliefs? Let’s take a look at osechi from a cultural and scientific perspective to understand why this unique cuisine is strong in Japan even today.

A variety of osechi food on a black plate

Nutritious food + feeding good microbiome = optimized health

So, kuromame black beans have a special meaning of good health? That’s scientifically true. Those beans are rich in a pigment called anthocyanin. Anthocyanins have antioxidant properties and help protect the body from the harmful effects of active oxygen. Active oxygen is a substance that damages cells and is said to be the source of cancer and aging. The cold weather and irregular lifestyle during the year-end and New Year’s holidays can cause stress to the body, leading to an increase in active oxygen species. It is precisely at times like these that I highly recommend black soybeans, which contain anthocyanins.

Tazukuri (Toasted anchovies and sesame seeds coated in a honey-soy sauce glaze) is rich in calcium. Calcium is one of the nutrients that Japanese people lack, and a calcium deficiency can cause osteoporosis. Women, in particular, are prone to bone weakness due to hormonal factors, so it is important to supply them with calcium.

Subasu (spicy pickled lotus root) symbolizes the ability to foresee the future. Lotus root contains vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber, and tannins. Vitamin C and tannins help alleviate oxidation in the body, dietary fiber helps regulate the intestinal environment, and potassium encourages the elimination of excess sodium in the body with urine, which is very important in the human body.

Namasu (a carrot and daikon radish salad lightly pickled in sweetened vinegar.) is crunchy and tangy with a bright and refreshing taste. Research published in the Journal of Diabetes Research suggests that vinegar helps people with type 2 diabetes use insulin more effectively, improving post-meal blood sugar levels. That makes it perfect as an appetizer, a side dish with grilled fish or meat, and its celebratory red and white colors make it an essential dish in Osechi cuisine.

The power of lactic acid bacteria for unconventional sushi

Narezushi picked up by chopsticks

Although osechi cuisine is packed with nutritious plant-based food cooked and tasted with Koji-based seasonings, such as soy sauce, mirin, and miso, Lactobacilli also play a significant role in Japanese foods at the beginning of the year. Lactobacilli not only promotes digestion and absorption but also inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. There is a type of fermented Sushi known as narezushi, made by lactic acid fermentation of fish, salt, and rice. Since it has been served as a feast for special occasions and celebrations, at the end of November, people in Japan usually start preparing narezushi for osechi cuisine coming up in January. Narezushi is a rare fermented food in the world. Still, it is known that similar food cultures exist outside of Japan in Southeast Asia and East Asia, including Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Even within Japan, various methods exist for making narezushi in different regions. The ingredients used, their preservation methods, and the time they are kept is also different in each country. The acidity of narezushi is due to lactic acid fermentation. The increase in lactic acid makes it sour. At the same time, umami ingredients such as amino acids increase, resulting in a unique flavor that is different from the sourness caused by vinegar. The acidity of Sushi inhibits the growth of bacteria. In old Japan, where there were no refrigerators, Sushi was made as a preserved food that could be eaten year-round as a source of protein.

Fermentation changes not only the ingredients’ smell and taste but also the ingredients’ nutritional value. It produces vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients that the original components did not have. In the case of narezushi, it is known that B vitamins are produced. In addition, long-term lactic acid fermentation makes it possible to eat the fish from head to tail, so it is possible to take calcium efficiently. During the fermentation process, the microorganisms break down the nutrients in the ingredients, so there is less burden on the stomach and liver when you eat it. So, matured narezushi allows for efficient digestion and absorption of nutrients. Due to lactic acid fermentation, narezushi contains plenty of lactic acid bacteria. Lactobacilli are good bacteria in the intestines, so it is expected to improve the intestinal environment, enhance immunity, and reduce fatigue. Narezushi also has considerable potential for preventive medicine. A study, “Antihypertensive effect of narezushi, a fermented mackerel product, on spontaneously hypertensive rats,” shows an antihypertensive effect on hypertensive rats. Also, continuous feeding of ayu (Japanese sweetfish) narezusi shows a positive effect on lipid metabolism in mice after 24 weeks. Narezushi may be expected to have great potential for improving metabolic syndrome.

Hopefully, everyone kick-started 2023 with good motivation, appreciation, and respect. I wish everyone a good and healthy year. There are pages of pages to share with Hakko hub readers who would like to dive into a rabbit hall. Japanese history and traditions are countless, and learning fermentation brings us to our well-being. Try some of these delicious traditional foods if you’re ever in Japan during the New Year. Happy New Year!

A variety of osechi food on a table

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2. Mitrou P, Petsiou E, Papakonstantinou E, Maratou E, Lambadiari V, Dimitriadis P, Spanoudi F, Raptis SA, Dimitriadis G. Vinegar Consumption Increases Insulin-Stimulated Glucose Uptake by the Forearm Muscle in Humans with Type 2 Diabetes. J Diabetes Res. 2015;2015:175204. doi: 10.1155/2015/175204. Epub 2015 May 6. PMID: 26064976; PMCID: PMC4438142.

3. Nishida T, Tsuneyama K, Tago Y, Nomura K, Fujimoto M, Nakajima T, Noguchi A, Minamisaka T, Hatta H, Imura J. Effect of Continuous Feeding of Ayu-Narezushi on Lipid Metabolism in a Mouse Model of Metabolic Syndrome. ScientificWorldJournal. 2021 Sep 6;2021:1583154. doi: 10.1155/2021/1583154. PMID: 34531707; PMCID: PMC8440109.

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Tateki "Tech" Matsuda | + posts

Tateki Matsuda is the founder of Biohacker Center Japan, holding degrees in Applied Nutrition and Sports Movement Science. As a Professional MMA fighter in the UFC and health consultant in Boston, he combines his expertise in biohacking, nutrition, and athletics to optimize performance and promote holistic wellness.