With big New Year’s parties officially out of the question, Bay Area stay-at-home revelers looking for a new, festive, and distinctly non-depressing way to ring in the New Year via takeout need look no further than an old Japanese tradition: the osechi bento box.
This year, at least one Bay Area restaurant, the Mission District izakaya Rintaro, is leaning hard into that tradition with a very baller $425 osechi bento box, meant to feed four people, that has a little bit of everything a person would want to kick off 2021 — especially if you’re a fan of spiny lobster and a New Year filled with lots of prosperity, happiness, and good luck.
The tradition, chef-owner Sylvan Mishima Brackett explains, came out of the time when the first few days of the New Year were the only time when Japanese housewives weren’t expected to cook — so, naturally, they had to do all of the cooking in advance, spending several days preparing a spread of auspicious New Year’s foods meant to be eaten at room temperature, which they’d pack in lacquered boxes called jubako. On New Year’s Day, families would simply enjoy the feast — no additional cooking or reheating required.
For Mishima Brackett, the boxes hold a lot of nostalgic meaning, not only because he grew up eating traditional osechi foods for New Year’s, but also because making osechi boxes was one of the first big projects he undertook as a young chef who had just started his own bento box service and catering company, Peko Peko, in the late 2000s — back when Rintaro was still just a glimmer in his eye.
He’s always wanted to do the osechi boxes at Rintaro, but every year he’d decide against it since the osechi food is so labor-intensive, and it would have been too much to make the boxes and throw a big New Year’s Eve dinner. This year, he only decided to go ahead with the project once the shutdown of outdoor dining canceled his New Year’s dinner plans. Even still, he’s already scheduled a part of his kitchen team to pull an all-nighter at the restaurant on December 30 just to get the 60 boxes he’s making done in time.
“Osechi is the biggest project ever,” Mishima Brackett says. “It’s like a week of work.”
As he’s done in the past, Mishima Brackett has recruited his father, a carpenter, to build the actual boxes by hand using fragrant Hinoki cypress wood. Each bento will consist of two 13 by 7 inch boxes, one stacked on top of the other, with a total of around 12 dishes inside. Compared to the last osechi bento boxes he made six years ago, Mishima Brackett says, “hopefully this one will be twice as deluxe.”
To wit, the top layer will contain the most substantial dishes: a whole boiled spiny lobster; a charcoal-grilled duck breast with roasted mushroom; and a kind of simmered chicken dish called chikezen-ni that features extra-thick Donko shiitake mushrooms and other assorted vegetables.
The bottom layer will be made up of the most traditional osechi side dishes, each of which has some auspicious meaning. The kamaboko — steamed fish cakes made from local ling cod and shaped like the rising sun — represent a new day. Ikura, or marinated steelhead roe, served inside a hollowed-out yuzu “cup” will symbolize wealth. And the namasu, traditionally an orange-and-white carrot and daikon salad, will instead feature strips of hachiya persimmon jelly (using persimmons from the tree in front of Rintaro) rolled in sheets of pickled daikon. That one symbolizes good luck. The box will also include a small root of fresh Half Moon Bay wasabi for grating.
If Rintaro’s version is too rich for your blood, many Bay Area Japanese supermarkets also offer osechi bento boxes. The San Francisco Japantown outpost of the Nijiya supermarket chain, for instance, is selling a variety of osechi boxes that were prepared in Japan, then shipped to the U.S. frozen. The three-tiered $175 box (available to be reserved online in very limited quantities) is meant to feed four to five people; they also offer smaller $42 and $32 boxes. Nearby Super Mira market is selling a $65 osechi box meant for one person.
And those looking for a more nonconventional spin on the tradition might consider Ox & Tiger, the SoMa-based Filipino-Japanese pop-up. Chefs EJ Macayan, who is Filipino, and his wife Hitomi Wada, who is Japanese, fuse their respective culinary traditions: the rich, high-acid flavors of Filipino cooking and the clean simplicity that Japanese food is known for. Priced at $50 a person, their New Year’s take-home meal isn’t strictly an osechi bento — it includes several dishes that are meant to be reheated, such as a beef-based version of toshikoshi soba (the noodles traditionally eaten “on the zero” after the New Year’s countdown, Wada says) and four different kinds of mochi.
But part of the feast will consist of a selection of what Wada describes as “very traditional” osechi side dishes, each with some small Filipino twist: The steamed fish cake will be seasoned with a calamansi patis vin; the datemaki (sweet rolled omelette) will come with sawsawan, a Filipino-style vinegar dip.
Like everything else at the pop-up, the magic lies in discovering the “commonality between opposite-spectrum flavors,” Wada says. “You eat it, and you’re like, wow, those flavors actually go really well together.”
The Ox & Tiger New Year’s set will be available to be reserved on Tock starting on December 11, with pickup at 167 11th Street in SoMa on December 30, noon–2 p.m., as well as free delivery in San Francisco, South San Francisco, and Daly City. Rintaro’s osechi box will be available to be reserved on Resy starting at 2 p.m. on Monday, December 14, with pickup at the restaurant (82 14th Street) slotted for the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
See the full contents of Rintaro’s box below: