SEASON-INGS: Toshikoshi soba: The Year in a Bowl (January)

Calendars. The things we keep on our pockets or in our heads. The reminders that pop up on our phones or hang from the refrigerator door. Time has become the days that pass – filled with festivities, deadlines, meetings, and birthdays.  We obsess about how to save time and how to use it best. Yet for all this exertion and maintenance, appreciating the passage of time is often overlooked. Though life may seem a hurried list of appointments and to-dos, the observations and traditions associated with the natural world offer perspective and inspiration no matter the season.

Around the world we celebrated the New Year. Contrary to the gaiety and festivities found in Western culture, in Japan the New Year is a quiet time for family – usually spent eating and relaxing once the year-end preparations and traditions are complete. It’s a hazy and introspective period– the time for quiet reflection on cold nights. If there is one dish that sums up the year and inspires nostalgic revelations – it is surely a bowl of Toshikoshi soba – or buckwheat noodles.

Eating toshikoshi soba was a custom that began in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Toshikoshi literally means to “pass the year.” The verb kosu is active – meaning to cross, go over, or through. As we all know – getting through a year is not a passive endeavor! At times it’s a down right struggle, and at the end of all the hustle and bustle something simple and satisfying seems best. Soba (or buckwheat) noodles are the epitome of modest fair. A good word to describe soba in Japanese is soboku (素朴) – which can be translated as simple, natural, and elegant in an unadorned way.  Given all the parties and celebrations that we inevitably find ourselves in during December – a humble end and fresh beginning seems appropriate.

Toshikoshi soba is a yearend tradition not only because of soba’s rustic simplicity, but its adopted meaning. Inspired by texture, nature, and tradition, the dish has an artless appeal. One of the most common beliefs associated with soba are their ability to sever one from the past. The noodles break easily when bitten and therefore became an analogy to ‘cut ties’ from the hardships, debts and burdens of the prior year. This is a comforting thought. Also, the noodles ability to stretch is associated with longevity, and their hearty nourishment was believed to cleanse toxins from the heart, liver, spleen, kidney, and lungs. 

Another association linked with soba is strength and resiliency, which can be found in the plant itself. Originating from the cold extremes of the Tibetan Plateau and Yunan, China – soba has the uncanny ability to survive severe weather during its growing period. It can thrive even in the shortest of summers, establishing its roots quickly and rising above the summer weeds. These characteristics served as inspiration for strength and resiliency. One more unique association of eating soba is its belief to attract money. In olden times metal workers used to scatter soba flour as a means to help them collect gold dust. Through that tradition, it came to be believed that soba attracted money.

While we all have our own unique yearly food traditions, for me the thought of toshikoshi soba is particularly attractive. Toshikoshi soba is not the promise of a better diet and exercise, nor preparing for the last hurrah of decadence before resolutions kick in. It is merely a dish of reflection and remembrance. As one sits over the bowl of hot noodles and observes their reflection in the broth – what memories of toshikoshi soba past fill the air? Food for thought, indeed.

Alexis SanbornComment