Many food traditions are associated with the Japanese New Year. Some of you would be familiar with the colourful Osechi cuisine that is traditionally enjoyed over the first three days of the New Year. Less well known, perhaps, is the ‘toshikoshi soba’, whose name literally translates as ‘into next year buckwheat noodles’. As the name implies, it is soba that is enjoyed on New Year’s Eve that is replete with symbolism—the length of the noodles denoting long life and lasting family harmony, the way soba noodles break up easily (a characteristic of buckwheat) compared to other noodles symbolic of breaking free from all those troubles during the old year, the medicinal properties of buckwheat as a way to wish for good health in the coming year, and so on. It is not known when the custom started, other than the fact that it was widely established by the mid-Edo period, i.e. around the 18th century.
There are many variants on the recipe for toshikoshi soba—it is often served as ‘kake-soba’, i.e. in a warm broth (a comfort dish of sorts in the Japanese winter), but some regions traditionally serve it cold. The toppings and broth, again, vary widely depending on the region and household… traditionally, toppings have been simple—even spartan—such as sliced shallots, with the main enjoyment being within the subtle, yet umami-packed, dashi-based broth that has carefully been extracted from konbu (kelp), katsuo (smoked bonito flakes) or shiitake mushroom. In modern times, though, toppings have become more decadent, including tempura prawns and grilled duck or chicken, while some recipes call for a chicken or beef stock broth.
I personally prefer my toshikoshi soba simple and ’true’ to tradition. Follow the link below for my take on the classic warm soba that is easily prepared in your Aussie kitchen. If you can get hold of high-quality soba with buckwheat content of 80% or higher, please use it as the earthy and nutty aroma of buckwheat is crucial to the dish—unfortunately, the ‘soba’ we find in supermarkets in Australia typically contain less than 30% buckwheat and has practically no aroma. With the dashi for the broth, I strongly recommend making your own from scratch, as the manufactured dashi granules and powders often contain additives such as MSG—and the dashi can make or break your soba.
Note that it is considered bad luck to eat toshikoshi soba across the years i.e. as the calendar changes to the new year, or to eat it at New Year. So, if you missed out on eating your soba before midnight on 31 December, just leave it for a few days and enjoy it once you are well and truly in the new year!