Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

Noodles for the New Year

Chopstick Cinema

This Week's Film: After Life
Cuisine: Japanese

Last January, for the New Year, I researched and prepared a Japanese dish called Toshikoshi, soba noodles in broth with various toppings. For my first rendition of the dish, I topped the noodles with chicken and shiitake mushrooms. This year, I’m going to try something different. In the meantime, while I conjure up a new Toshikoshi recipe, here’s a reprise of what I discovered in last year’s research:

(10 January 2009)

“Although I served my Toshikoshi Soba a few days late, this dish is typically eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve, just as the old year passes and the new one begins. In fact, the name Toshikoshi means ‘year passing’, and the symbolism of these long buckwheat noodles is twofold: to ensure longevity, and to connect the new year with the old one.

And although the New Year is the most important holiday in Japan, celebrating it isn’t nearly as festive and boisterous as we know it here in the U.S. It’s a time for cleaning the house and decorating it with evergreen boughs; making Osechi bento boxes of cold, dried, fermented, or pickled foods, so that the lady of the house can take a break from the kitchen; gathering with the family to listen for the 108 tolls of the temple bell; and eating Toshikoshi Soba at midnight.

Soba noodles first came to Japan with Buddhist monks from China around the ninth century. With its humble appearance and rich nutritional value, soba had become a staple among the religious ascetics, and once Zen Buddhism found its way into Japanese culture, soba eventually came to be favored by the general population as well. From the common folk who enjoy it at curtained stand-up counters in alleyways and train stations, to aristocrats who partake of its pleasures in some of Japan’s most elegant restaurants, the Japanese people have truly made soba their own.

Served both hot and cold, the preparation of soba ranges from the simple to the sublime. At its most humble, soba is served ‘au naturale’ with a dish of soy sauce for dipping. For more elaborate soba dishes, other liquid ingredients might include green tea, or the kelp and bonito stock called dashi, or a special broth called tsuyu, flavored with soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine. And sometimes, the milky leftover water used for boiling the soba is added to the sauce.

Toppings for soba noodles might include finely chopped scallions, bits of seaweed, spinach leaves, grated yam, slices of kamaboko fish cakes, mochi dumplings, golden fried tofu (which makes it Kitsune Soba), bits of crispy-fried tempura batter (which makes it Tanuki Soba), or a raw egg (which makes it ‘moon-viewing’ Tsukimi Soba).

And what better way to start the New Year than with one of the world’s healthiest and most nutritious foods. Flour made from the seed of the buckwheat plant is naturally gluten, fat and cholesterol free, and is a complete source of protein, containing all eight essential amino acids. It is also high in B-vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus. However, to make soba noodles, the buckwheat flour must be mixed with about 20 percent wheat flour for elasticity. Noodles made from 100% buckwheat fall apart because they lack the gluten necessary to form an elastic dough.

From my research, it seems there is no specific recipe for the Toshikoshi Soba dish traditionally served for Japanese New Year, although for this occasion, they are typically served hot rather than cold. So choose your favorite broth and toppings, and enjoy. And as you might guess, it is considered bad luck to leave your bowl of Toshikoshi Soba unfinished. So make sure you slurp up every bite!”

My new Toshikoshi recipe will be posted at the end of the week along with my After Life film review.