Written by Kevin Kilcoyne
When you think of New Year’s is there a special food that comes to mind? Does it remind you of grapes and champagne? Black-eyed peas and collard greens? Roast pork? Or maybe just a slice of cake?
Growing up, my family opted for 12 grapes and a glass of champagne (or more likely Martinelli’s) as the clock struck midnight and followed that up with a meal of black-eyed peas, collards, and cornbread for a New Year’s lunch.
Until recently I kept to this tradition as well, not necessarily believing that it truly played a role in determining my fate for the coming year, but simply because it was tradition. That was, of course, until I experienced New Year’s in Japan.
Who needs grapes when you can have mochi, ozoni¸ osechi, and most of all soba?
Japan has many New Year’s traditions involving food and I was fortunate enough to experience several of them while living there. And although I find myself craving some freshly pounded mochi and boxes of osechias New Year’s Day approaches, I don’t have the time or resources to make those dishes, no matter how much I’ll miss them this year.
Now that might be enough to bring me to tears under most circumstances, but fortunately for me, there is still one dish that is simple to prepare and easily at hand; toshikoshi soba(年越し蕎麦).
Literally translating to year-crossing soba, or year-crossing noodle, toshikoshi soba is a noodle dish traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve, orŌmisoka (大晦日), as a way to reflect on the closing of the previous year and the ushering in of the next one.
As is the case with many superstitious rituals, the true origin of eating sobafor New Year’s isn’t quite clear. Although some historians believe the tradition dates to the 13th and 14th centuries, it was during the Edo Period (1603-1868) that the tradition became a widespread cultural practice across all classes. It was during this period that many of Japan’s “ancient” traditions became established as the general prosperity and peace under Tokugawa rule spurred on a cultural flourishing across the country. The commoners began to develop customary traditions and superstitious rituals as they gained access to things that were once far out of reach. In fact, the toshikoshi soba tradition itself possibly began prior to the prosperity of Edo Japan through the generosity of a temple or a wealthy lord that chose to treat the hungry commoners to a bowl of sobaon New Year’s Eve.
Whatever the origin might be, it was the shonin, or merchant class, of the Edo Period that solidified the tradition as a superstitious ritual still practiced to this day. OnŌmisokayou’ll find people all over Japan huddled over warm bowls of sobain the hopes of achieving good luck and fortune in the New Year.
There’s Something in the Flour: What Makes Soba Special
There are several beliefs surrounding sobathat make it a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. For starters, the buckwheat plant itself is strong and resilient, a crop that isn’t easily beaten by wind and rain, so people hope that by eating the buckwheat noodles they too will be strong and healthy in the New Year.
Then there is the belief that the long, thin noodles represent a long, happy life and by slurping up a bowl of sobathey too will extend their life and by extension the number of bowls they’ve yet to enjoy. This was in line with the popular idea of a “long and thin life” as taught by Confucianism, which was summarized in the phrase hosoku nagaku (literally thin and long) or in other words a long and uneventful life.
Additionally, the smooth sobanoodles can be quite tender, breaking easily when bitten, like one hopes to break free from the past at the closing of the year. In many ways the New Year in Japan represents an opportunity to start fresh, so the idea of breaking free from the past, free from the chains of the previous year and whatever misfortune it might have brought, is key.
Lastly, one of the more interesting origin stories of toshikoshi soba dates back to when merchants and goldsmiths used to use buckwheat flower to gather up leftover gold dust. People, particularly merchants, then began associating sobawith gold and therefore prosperity and fortune.
A Bowl to Wait a Year For
So, whether your aim this New Year is for good fortune, a long life, or perhaps a new slate, give toshikoshi sobaa try at home. The most common preparation is one of the simplest (and most delicious) forms of soba - buckwheat soba in a bowl of hot dashi, topped with finely chopped green onions. That shouldn’t stop you from adding your own toppings like tempura, kamabokofish cake, a soft-boiled egg, some wakame seaweed, or a slice of chashu.The point is to reflect the fortune you want in the New Year so don’t skimp on your toshikoshi soba!
And speaking of not skimping, definitely make sure you have a good dashi to go with your soba! That hot broth will help to melt away the stress of the old year, so be sure to make it as delicious and rich in umami as possible.
If you’re looking for some inspiration for your toshikoshi soba, I’d recommend watching Netflix’s Shinya Shokudō (深夜食堂)or Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories.Episode 10 of the first season celebrates toshikoshi sobawith an episode titled “New Year’s Eve Noodles.” I’d then recommend watching the rest of the two seasons as aside from being a great show, it is an incredible way to get some inspiration for your washokuadventures in the New Year!
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.