Japanese American New Year’s Food Traditions Transcend Time

Jane Matsumoto’s family is so eager to eat their annual ozoni that they gather around the table at 2 in the morning, right after they’ve cleaned the confetti, streamers and champagne glasses from their New Year’s Eve festivities. Ms. Matsumoto, who is sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, and the executive culinary director of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles, looks forward to the brothy soup bobbing with mochi pieces every year.

Ozoni is standard New Year’s Day fare for many Japanese Americans, whether they are nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants, or yonsei, fourth-generation Japanese Americans. Starting in the 1880s, the first major wave of Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States, and although many New Year’s Day tables have evolved to include dishes from other cultures, customary Japanese dishes remain.

Recipe: Ozoni (New Year Mochi Soup)

Mochi adds a satisfying chew against the warming broth.Credit…Kerri Brewer for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

As a child, the chef Charles Namba patiently toasted squares of mochi every New Year’s Day over the ceramic grates of a floor heater in his home in Los Angeles. The smooth, white cubes of pounded steamed rice would develop a gentle char and inflate like a small balloon after enough time over the heat. They were then dropped into a comforting bowl of ozoni studded with hunks of chicken, wilted spinach and shiitake mushrooms. His family found it especially nourishing after a night spent stuffing themselves with cookies and watching the Times Square ball drop on television. The soup is also “super important” to the chef Chris Ono of Hansei, a pop-up in the same Los Angeles cultural center where Ms. Matsumoto works, and his family. Mr. Ono said it was something they made every year, taking care to even get their mochi from the local Buddhist temple.

Steven Pursley, the chef and owner of Menya Rui in St. Louis, spends the first day of the year eating yet another type of soup: Okinawan soba. The gentle broth, made from dashi and pork, is a great base for the wheat-based soba noodles commonly eaten in Okinawa, off the southern coast of mainland Japan. In America, Mr. Pursley’s resourceful mother sometimes used linguine when she wasn’t able to find Okinawan soba noodles. Now, he makes the noodles from scratch.

Recipe: Okinawan Soba

Okinawan soba is made with wheat-based noodles, which signify longevity for the new year.Credit…Kerri Brewer for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

Mr. Namba is also fond of eating soba — the more well-known buckwheat version — making special versions with lobster tempura or duck for New Year’s at his Los Angeles restaurants Tsubaki and Ototo.

As with many global New Year’s traditions, the dishes have strong symbolic meanings. Ozoni is associated with good health and good fortune, with the mochi signifying longevity. Soba noodles represent breaking ties with the hardships of the previous year and starting anew, Mr. Pursley said, as well as a long life.

Perhaps the best example of symbolic Japanese New Year foods is osechi ryori, or a box filled with an assortment of traditional New Year’s dishes, each with a specific meaning. Each year, the chef Niki Nakayama serves a version at her restaurant n/naka in Los Angeles. She includes kuromame, or sweet black soybeans, a wish for good health; datemaki, or a Japanese rolled omelet, that looks like a scroll for the acquisition of knowledge; and kurikinton, a vibrant mash of Japanese sweet potatoes flavored with candied chestnut syrup and topped with the golden candied chestnuts, which represent gold and bring economic fortune.

Recipe: Kurikinton (Japanese Sweet Potatoes and Candied Chestnuts)

Candied chestnuts lend a golden hue to mashed white sweet potatoes.Credit…Kerri Brewer for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.

The chef Jesse Ito’s father, Masaharu Ito, also cooked an elaborate osechi ryori at his restaurant Fuji, which he opened in south New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia, in 1979 and ran for 37 years. Masaharu, exhausted from cooking a full osechi ryori at the restaurant, celebrated with something simpler at home: oyakodon, an easy chicken-and-egg rice dish which Jesse called “the ultimate Japanese comfort food.” But Masaharu was most excited to make something a bit more local: hoagies. He bought bread from the Wawa convenience store chain and stacked it with cold cuts, provolone and a generous amount of olives. “They were terrific,” Mr. Ito said fondly.

It’s not uncommon for Japanese American New Year’s tables to include other culinary influences. “Third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans started to incorporate foods that were familiar to the Japanese American communities they grew up in,” said Ms. Matsumoto, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States. As with the hoagies in South Jersey, it’s not rare to find tamales on the table in Los Angeles, or pies and tubs of ice cream for dessert across America.

Jane Matsumoto, the executive culinary director of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles, prepares ozoni in their on-site kitchen.Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Chinese dishes like chow mein and wontons are also a staple of many Japanese American New Years gatherings. “Chinese food has historically been a part of Japanese communities,” Ms. Matsumoto said. After Japanese Americans were released from the internment camps in 1946, Chinese restaurants were some of the few places to welcome them immediately, she said, adding, “It was a safe haven.” This is why Mr. Ono sometimes makes his ozoni with char siu, the Chinese dish of barbecued pork.

Still, most Japanese American New Year’s tables remain quite traditional, with the recipes staying the same as they are passed down from one generation to the next. It’s one of the ways Japanese Americans maintain a connection to their roots and their past. Mr. Ono hopes to serve an osechi riyori at his restaurant next year — one that is affordable, starring more local California produce.

But he wants to make sure he doesn’t deviate too far from long-established customs, given that each dish has a symbolic meaning and is often tied to luck: “You don’t want to mess with that.”

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