Why Japanese People Eat a Bowl of Soba Noodles on New Year’s Eve
We can all use a moment of quiet to let go of the past year’s burdens
When we think of holiday foods, more often than not we think of something big and gaudy, something worth taking a photo of on a big table spread. We imagine a giant stuffed turkey, an assortment of colorful roasted vegetables, or a laboriously decorated, dense, chocolate Christmas cake. It’s hearty, it’s abundant, and most of all it’s celebratory.
Japan is usually no different — there is its own tradition in colorful and celebratory food — except on New Year’s Eve.
A New Year’s Eve tradition of soba noodles and…silence?
When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, many countries have a tradition of loud fireworks, big confetti, and lots of flashing lights — but in Japan, you might be surprised to find that midnight happens in silence, with nothing but the sound of a ringing temple bell.
It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, and with it, you might enjoy a bowl of soba noodles.
The tradition is known as toshikoshi soba, which translates to “year crossing” soba, where one would enjoy a bowl of soba on New Year’s Eve, often at a time close to midnight.
While there are no hard and fast rules as to how to prepare toshikoshi soba, it’s often served quite simply: in a kombu noodle broth, topped with a few chopped leeks, and perhaps a bit of Japanese parsley or yuzu peel to garnish. It’s not a dish that’s particularly colorful or hearty, and is perhaps one of the more plain foods there is to Japanese cuisine —so why do so many Japanese households enjoy it on New Year’s Eve?
A simple bowl of soba, to part with the past year
Toshikoshi soba was established sometime during the Edo period, gaining popularity around the 1800s. It became popular for the new year for several reasons, one being that soba noodles are made of buckwheat, a grain which is particularly known for its resilience to severe weather and often represents strength in Japanese culture. Soba noodles are also often associated with wellbeing, as the long strands signify longevity, and consuming them has been thought to bring good health for the next year.
But the most commonly cited reason individuals enjoy soba noodles on New Year’s Eve is because they represent a clean break-off from the past year.
Soba noodles are delicate, unlike thick udon noodles or chewy ramen noodles, and the way the strands are easily bitten off represent the clear cut off many individuals seek before the beginning of any new year. Like a new haircut or a decluttering of old things, toshikoshi soba is about moving on from that which burdens us, or learning from the mistakes we’ve made on our journey to the end of year.
To take a moment to understand the lessons which we wish to hold versus the burdens which need to be let go.
While most of us may be ready to engage in celebrations, having this moment of quiet is important because we need time to pause to renew. When our minds are too busy, fluttering onto the next thing and preoccupied with what’s next, we lose sight of the lessons we’ve learned.
Even in celebration, it can help to take a moment to pause and understand the lessons we wish to hold onto versus the burdens we need to let go.
The best way to start a new chapter is with a quiet bowl of soba
While I love big celebrations, this year I’m relating to the soba dish. In a year where so much unexpected has happened, there are many things to move on from, events and life changes to grow beyond — and what better way is there to start anew than to begin the year in peace, with a fresh, simple dish?
Physical, spiritual, and emotional repair happens when we slow down, take the time to make order out of chaos, and reconsider what’s meaningful to us. So before you get caught up in the excitement and loudness of big holiday celebrations, don’t forget to seize your final chance for a quiet moment of reflection: because I think we’re all ready for a different kind of year.