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Author Notes: At the end of the year in Japan, we do yearly thorough cleaning. It’s the “spring cleaning” but done in the middle of winter. At schools, in offices, and at homes, we clean the dust and junk accumulated during the year and prepare to start anew. My family, that had a rather relaxed attitude about regular tidying up of the house (=we were messy), had no choice but to adhere to this tradition because we had to get ready for three days of new year’s celebration in which our relatives and guests would come visit and stay with us.
On new year’s eve, we would frantically pick up clothes, books, and various random stuff lying on the floor or piled up on the desks and tables, and put them back to their long-forgotten shelves and drawers. The trash was dumped. All the doors and windows were opened, washed and polished. The furniture was moved and dusted. Everywhere was vacuumed and wiped clean.
When the hectic day of cleaning would end, it was time for soba (buckwheat) noodles. People in Japan eat soba noodles on new year’s eve, and it is called “Toshikoshi soba,” or year-end soba.
There are two common reasonings for eating soba on new year’s eve. One is that the thin and long soba noodles signify long life. The other is that soba noodles, which are not glutinous and can easily break, represent cutting away and leaving behind the year’s misfortunes. My mother would tell me instead that it was because everyone was so busy cleaning all day and there was no time left for making dinner, and soba was quick and easy to prepare.
Whatever the reason, I couldn’t wait to eat new year’s eve soba. The heaviness of fresh soba noodles in my hands, the steam rising from the big pot of broth that filled the kitchen with sweet and salty aroma. The kitchen windows all white with condensation, the smell of kerosine stove, and the annual song contest on national TV.
We ate soba throughout the year, but the year-end soba, that my not-cleaning-oriented family ate together after we spent the entire day as members of dedicated cleaning team, truly felt like a reward and celebration.
Mirin is sweet rice wine. If it’s not available, mix 1 part sugar and 3 part sake or vodka. If you don’t have sake on hand, you can use white wine.
To make dashi (Japanese stock), put 10cm of konbu and 3 cups of cold water in a pot and heat with low heat for about 15 minutes. Don’t let it boil as this creates unpleasant taste and smell. If you have dried shiitake mushrooms, soak them in cold water and mix part of this soaking water with Konbu dashi (1 part shiitake water : 5 part konbu dashi). —Kyoko Ide
Soba noodle soup and toppings
- 160 grams dried soba noodles
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 cups dashi
- 1 handful arugula
- 1 teaspoon thinly sliced leek
- 1 piece carrot, julienned
- 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon water
- Start heating a big pot of water for cooking soba. In a separate pot, put the arugula and 1 cm of water in a pot and cover. Turn on the heat to medium-high and cook with the steam (about 1-2 minutes after boiling). When it’s cooked, drain, put in a bowl of cold water, drain again right away and squeeze out water. Cut into pieces.
- Make broth: In a small pot, heat Mirin and let it boil for a few seconds to let the alcohol evaporate. Add soy sauce and dashi and heat. When it boils, turn off the heat and set aside.
- Set aside some boiling water (to reheat cooked soba noodles later). Cook soba in the rest of the boiling water as indicated in the package (3-5 minutes). When it’s cooked, drain and wash the noodles under cold running water, then drain well. Set aside in a colander.
- Heat the broth. Briefly reheat the soba noodles in the set-aside boiling water, drain well and put them in a bowl. Pour the broth. Serve with carrot tempura, arugula and leek.