Ozoni: A Japanese New Year Mochi Soup

by Flora Baker

What is Ozoni?

Eaten in the morning of New Year’s Day in Japan, a bowl of ozoni soup is a traditional home-cooked meal that brings good luck and good health for the coming year. 

The general translation of ozoni is ‘mixed bowl’ – and in its simplest form, ozoni is made up of mochi (rice cakes) and boiled vegetables served together in a bowl of hot miso soup. But it’s so much more than that. 

Where Does Ozoni Come From? 

Ozoni is the unique Japanese New Year soup

As ever, there are numerous theories about the origin of ozoni (お雑煮). What we do know is that the soup has been around since ancient times, along with the mochi rice cakes the soup contains, which have been part of Japanese offering culture for centuries. 

Mochi dates back to the Heian period (794-1185) or perhaps even longer ago, when people believed eating hardened mochi would help to strengthen their teeth and bones. Mochi has also been significant in New Year’s celebrations as a symbol of nourishment and endurance. Eating mochi on the first day of the year means you’ll combat the winter weather and travel safely through the coming months, while kagamimochi (鏡餅), or ‘mirror rice cakes’, are a staple part of New Year celebrations, placed at the family altar to bring luck for the new year. 

During the Edo period (1603-1868), mochi transitioned from being predominantly an offering to the gods and became a more mainstream part of Japanese culture. Mochi became particularly popular at New Year, when families came together and had the time to make mochi in the traditional way (which needs a lot of manpower!). 

So it stands to reason that these chewy rice snacks eventually found their way into an actual Japanese meal too. Apparently ozoni was once served to Samurai soldiers during battle as part of their ritualized meals, and the practice of making and eating ozoni may have also stemmed from placing the mochi offerings for the gods into the first drawn water of the year before simmering it over the year’s first fire. 

Nowadays, ozoni is a wholly family affair – so you won’t find it on any restaurant menus. You can get ready-made mochi at stores across Japan, but some families still make mochi from scratch for their ozoni new year soup. They cook sweetened glutinous rice then pound it into a paste before molding it into shape. When preparing ozoni, the mochi might be circular or rectangular, depending on the region in which it's made. 

Why Does Ozoni Have Regional Variations?

There are three main components to ozoni soup: the mochi, the assortment of other ingredients (vegetables and/or meats), and the soup stock itself. 

The true beauty of ozoni is that it’s a household meal, which means the accumulated information about this Japanese new year soup is all from family lore. Simply looking at a recipe won’t tell you what the exact flavor is going to be! 

The true beauty of ozoni is that it’s a household meal

While there are plenty of regional variations, ozoni can be largely split into two main types: the eastern Kanto style and the western Kansai style. There’s long been a cultural contention between these two Japanese regions, and it’s reflected in ozoni soup too. 

Kanto Style Ozoni 

The ozoni soup made in the Kanto region uses dashi and soy sauce for the soup base. Combined with dried bonito (katsuo) flakes, it’s a dark colored broth with a depth of umami flavor. Kanto style ozoni usually features round-shaped mochi that has been boiled.  

Kansai Style Ozoni 

The Kansai style of ozoni uses white miso, resulting in a creamy colored broth that’s lighter and more subtly flavored. The Kansai mochi is usually rectangular, and is baked instead of boiled. 

The Dashi Soup Base 

The most variable aspect of ozoni is the soup base. It might be flavored with dashi, soy sauce, white miso, or red miso — each of which will wholly change the overall dish’s taste. 

Usually ozoni is made either with a simple sumashi broth which is soy sauce-based, or with white miso, which is a little sweeter and less salty. The city of Matsue makes a sweetened red bean soup called zensai, while Okayama’s soup is made with bonito and kelp.  

How to Choose the Right Mochi for the Traditional Japanese Soup Ozoni

The mochi in ozoni might be grilled, stewed, fried or lightly roasted before being added into the soup. Each different style of preparation will change the overall texture and flavor. The mochi will also be formed into different shapes depending on the region it’s made in! Every family has their own specific tastes, so despite the general trends across the country you’ll still find cities and homes that do their own thing. 

While the Kansai region serves rectangular mochi and the Kanto region prefers round boiled mochi, people in Hokkaido grill their rectangular mochi, and Kogoshima makes round mochi and stews them. In regions of the country where rice doesn’t grow so easily, mochi can also be made from tofu instead. 

Additional Ozoni Japanese New Year Mochi Soup Recipe

The majority of ozoni soups will include meat like chicken, though seafood is common too in locations near the ocean. Then a healthy dose of vegetables is added, usually what’s most local in the region: this could be spinach, carrots, daikon radish, green onions, or mushrooms. Sometimes you’ll find kamaboko, a pink fish cake. 

All these ingredients have their own significance to an ozoni bowl, and the way the vegetables are cut and presented have symbolic meaning too. In Nara prefecture for instance, they make all their ingredients circular to create a particularly harmonious meal. 

The bowl’s color scheme even has a purpose. The typical Japanese New Year colors are red and white: red protects against bad spirits and white symbolizes purity. 

How to Make Japanese New Year Soup Ozoni At Home 

You’ll need a piece of dried kombu or some kombu dashi powder to make your soup broth. If you’re making Kanto ozoni you’ll also need sake or mirin, plus soy sauce and salt. For Kansai ozoni, grab some white miso paste. 

In terms of extras, the typical ingredients would be mochi (probably shop bought), carrots, daikon radishes and spinach. Preparation is as follows: 

  • Soak the dried kombu overnight (if using)
  • The next morning, peel and slice your chosen vegetables 
  • Add vegetables into the kombu water, and just before it’s boiling take out and discard the dried kombu. For the Kanto version, add in your soy sauce and sake at this stage
  • Lower the heat and cover with a lid to simmer until the vegetables are tender 
  • For the Kansai version, dissolve your miso paste into the soup until it’s a requisite flavor for you/your family 
  • Prep your mochi — under the grill until toasted to a puffy consistency is a great method
  • Serve up by placing a mochi in the bowl then ladling the soup and vegetables on top. The mochi will be stretchy and elastic once it’s hot – perfect for eating with chopsticks
  • Enjoy your own home cooked New Year’s ozoni soup! 

When stored in an airtight container in the fridge, homemade ozoni will keep for about three days.

How to Try Ozoni For Yourself

As you might imagine, the flavor of ozoni soup can vary significantly depending on the ingredients used; anything from a simple clear and clean broth to a hearty and deep flavored meal. One thing’s for sure: Bokksu has plenty of delicious mochi to chew your way through while you decide on your perfect style of ozoni soup. Head over to our boutique to find out more! 

Author Bio

Flora Baker is a writer, blogger and author based in London, UK. She runs the award-winning travel website Flora The Explorer and has written for Coastal Living, Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler.