IN JAPANESE CULTURE, soba (buckwheat) noodles have always been seen as a “happiness” food, served on special occasions. It is traditional, too, when moving into a new house to greet your neighbors with hikoshi soba (moving soba). This involves a play on words, as soba also means “close” or “near” – like neighbors.
Another soba custom is toshikoshi soba (year’s-passing soba), supposed to be the last food to touch your lips on New Year’s Eve. The tradition is so established nationwide that often reservations are needed even for buying the freshly made soba to cook up at home. One year I attempted to make my own: working with fresh buckwheat flour proved extremely hard, but my toshikoshi noodles won nods of approval from the family even though, without the special chef’s knife used by soba cutters, they were a trifle thick.
According to a diary written by a samurai named Watanabe Hyotaro between 1839 and 1848, it was common in those days to go out and eat soba on the last day of the year. An even older story, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333), relates how in Hakata, Kyushu, a businessman from China named Shakokumei used to distribute buckwheat flour to poor people on the last day of the year, telling them how it was to erase the year of poverty and welcome in a good new year.
Perhaps the most persuasive explanation for the tradition, however, is that in the Edo era (1603-1867) merchants used to clean factory floors with soba dumplings to pick up any gold filaments. So it became a superstition that soba “collected gold”. Eventually factory workmen started to make toshikoshi noodles, and ordinary people copied them – all in the hope of having a prosperous new year.
- 6 ¼ cups water
- A 3-inch by 3-inch piece of kombu kelp wiped with a damp cloth and lightly slashed to release the flavor
- 2 oz. katsuobushi dried bonito flakes
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon mirin sweet sake
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
- 1 lb. dried or 1 ¼ lbs. fresh soba noodles
- 4 dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms stemmed (reconstitute dried ones by soaking in warm water with a dash of sugar for 30 minutes – reserve 2 tablespoons of liquid to add to broth)
- ½ lb. chicken breast cut into thin slices
- 2 large Japanese leeks white part only, cut diagonally into thin slices
- 5 ¼ oz. spinach trimmed, parboiled, and drained
- Seven-spice pepper to taste for garnish
Heat the water with the kelp in a deep saucepan. Just before it boils, remove the kelp and pour in the dried bonito flakes. Boil, stirring, for about three minutes, then strain into a clean saucepan. Add the soy sauce, mirin, salt, and mushroom liquid. Bring to a boil again; taste, adjust seasoning if necessary and cook over medium heat for a few minutes.
Five minutes before serving, heat up the chicken and leeks in the broth. In another pan, cook the noodles according to instructions on the package, then drain and rinse to get rid of the starch.
To serve, place a mound of noodles in each deep soup bowl. Top with one mushroom and separate mounds of chicken, Japanese leeks, and spinach. Gently ladle on the broth and serve immediately. Pass the seven-spice pepper separately.