New Year’s Eve is a special food day in Japan because it is the one time of the year that everyone collectively eats soba, or buckwheat noodles, not just for the good flavor but also to celebrate the metaphor of leanness and longevity.
Even those who prefer ramen noodles, udon noodles or pasta, or those who usually don’t eat noodles, will slurp a mouthful of soba because it is a cultural tradition. Soba even gets a special name on this day — Toshi-koshi soba, or passing-of-the-year soba. If you miss the ritual, it’s like you missed the year-end detox program.
Buckwheat, the main ingredient in soba noodles, is a plant cultivated for its grain-like seeds. In the U.S., it is for the most part used as a cover crop. Despite its name, buckwheat is unrelated to wheat; instead, the plant belongs to the family of rhubarb, sorrel and knotweed. It takes only 75 days to grow and doesn’t require fertile land, so it is highly sustainable.
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Bees love buckwheat, and so did our ancestors, including George Washington, who planted it as a presidential crop, and songwriter Stephen Foster, who included buckwheat in his lyrics to “Oh! Susanna”:
“The buckwheat cake was in her mouth
The tear was in her eye
Says I, ‘I’m coming from the south,
Susanna, don’t you cry.’ ”
But as a food source in the U.S., buckwheat kind of got lost along with our heritage grains when industrial mono-cropping of wheat took over and wiped out the varieties and flavors in our diet. A growing group of scientists, farmers, millers, chefs and cooks in this country are slowly bringing our heritage grains back, including the pseudo-grain buckwheat.
Buckwheat is a delicious fruit seed that makes good flour for noodles and baking bread and cakes. In Japan, buckwheat is considered a medicinal food. It is high in protein, higher than wheat or rice. It is also known to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and clean your blood, not to mention it is easy to digest and contains no gluten. Soba noodles made with new-crop buckwheat are especially sought after, like a seasonal fruit. At its peak season, the color of the buckwheat flour is a creamy light olive. It’s nutty fragrance and sweet flavor is incredibly satisfying.
Soba and gongs mark New Year’s Eve in Japan
Eating soba is a good year-end detox food, and the practice can be doubly so if you pair it with temple gongs. When I was growing up in Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan, we would eat our soba noodles on New Year’s Eve and for further detoxing of the soul go to a nearby Buddhist temple to listen to the 108 gongs (Joya-no-kane). According to Buddhist scriptures, for every gong you hear, one of your wrongdoings will be forgiven. I remember trying to stay up to listen to all 108 gongs and figuring out how many mean things I had done to my brothers and sisters during that year. I suppose the practice can be compared to a long Catholic confession session, without the guidance of the priest and Hail Marys to recite.
I usually didn’t stay awake to the last gong, but then, I didn’t feel that bad because I had slurped the soba noodles. On New Year’s Day, I would wear a kimono and tried to act feminine for once and do calligraphy — writing Chinese characters like “peace,” “happiness,” “health,” “endeavor” and “filial piety” on rice paper — and prepare to face the new challenges that awaited me.
The simplest way to eat soba noodles is plain, with a dipping sauce and a few condiments like sliced scallions and grated daikon radish. You never want to demote soba noodles to be served as a side dish. Serve the noodles with grated wasabi if you can get some, but it is not necessary and fake ones don’t do justice. Use grated ginger instead if you want the spice.
You can make a batch of soba noodles by hand, which is what I do. It takes less than 20 minutes to make them from scratch. Cook the noodles in a big pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, do a good rinse and strain off the water. Slurp the noodles with the dipping sauce. You will be happy eaters who will live nearly forever.
Nihachi-style Soba Noodles
These soba noodles use 80% buckwheat flour and 20% all-purpose wheat flour. Makes 2 to 3 servings.
10 ounces stone-milled soba-grade buckwheat flour
2.5 ounces all-purpose flour
6 ounces hot water
Cornstarch or tapioca flour for dusting
1. Place the buckwheat and all-purpose flours in a large bowl. Pour most of the hot water over the entire flour mixture, using a wooden spoon as a guide. (Reserve a small amount of the hot water in case you need to add more in the next step.) Mix the dough quickly until it forms a single mass. Once the dough is cooled off, use your hands to massage the dough until the flour and water are distributed evenly and there is no flour left on the bowl.
2. Place the dough on a cutting board. Work quickly with the heels of your hands to form a smooth dough. If the dough feels dry, lightly wet the tips of your fingers with more water, brushing them against the surface of the dough while kneading until smooth. The final dough will be soft and smooth and not sticky. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Form the dough into a smooth ball and place it on the cutting board and lightly sprinkle cornstarch over the top. Using the palm and heel of your hand, flatten the ball into a disk about half an inch thick.
4. Use a rolling pin to roll the disk into a rectangle about the thickness of a credit card. Generously sprinkle cornstarch over half the dough and fold the other half over like a book. (The cornstarch will keep the dough from sticking together as it is cut). Generously dust another crosswise half of the dough with cornstarch and fold again.
5. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, slice the dough into very thin (about 1/16th inch) noodles. Keep the noodles loosely covered with plastic wrap while you boil the water for cooking.
6. To cook the noodles, bring a large pot of water (at least 2 gallons) to a boil over high heat. Gently drop the soba into the boiling water. Keep the water boiling vigorously to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Cook the noodles to al dente, about 90 seconds (timing will vary depending on the thickness of the noodles).
7. Immediately remove the noodles to a strainer set in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Wash the noodles, using both hands to remove any surface starch. Prepare a second bowl of ice water to shock the noodles. Drain the noodles well. Serve with soba-tsuyu dipping sauce (see accompanying recipe) on the side, along with desired condiments.
Note: You can source fresh mill-to-order organic sobako-grade flour from Anson Mills, or you can also try Japanese markets. Cold Mountain and Nijiya makes sobako-grade flours.
Easy dipping sauce
4 cups water
4 cups bonito flakes, divided
4 ounces mirin
4 ounces soy sauce (Usukuchi or Koikuchi-type Japanese soy sauce)
1. Make a dashi broth by bringing four cups of water to boil, then turning off the heat for one minute before adding in three loosely packed cups of bonito flakes. The flakes will wilt and shrivel upon contact with the steam. Let the liquid steep for five minutes before draining the liquid into a bowl through a paper towel or cheese cloth lined strainer. (Don’t press on the flakes or the liquid will turn cloudy and fishy.)
2. Measure out three cups (24 ounces) of the dashi broth and bring it to a boil with 4 ounces of mirin and 4 ounces of soy sauce.
3. As soon as it boils, turn off the heat and add in one more cup of bonito flakes. Let them steep for one minute before draining the liquid into another bowl. Let cool. This will make enough dipping sauce for three to four servings of soba. Refrigerated, it will keep for a week.
Top photo: Soba noodles. Credit: Patrick Gookin