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New Year in Japan: Soba Noodles

Do you celebrate New Year's Eve? Not all countries in the world will celebrate this day the same way, much like how Christmas in Japan is much different than in the Western cultures. If you do celebrate the coming of a new year, do you have a favorite meal to enjoy on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day? Japanese culture contains a strong focus on food, and of course New Year's is no exception!

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In 2013 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) as an intangible cultural heritage. And what are the meals added to such a distinguished list? Mainly component of what is called "osechi" - food eaten at the New Year's celebration, and containing staples such as various fish, beans, rice, and etc. It is a well-balanced combination of both nutrition and delicious hearty taste to make one's body stronger for the cold winter season. In the past, it was impossible to purchase already prepared food, and therefore housewives prepared the dishes in advance. And even today, some families in Japan will still prefer to cook at home for that authentic experience.

Nowadays, everything can be bought, and the prices for such dishes will depend on the quality and quantity of the meals. Some well-known locations with famous chefs might require a reservation in advance. Regardless of which box of osechi you get, a universal feature will be the colorful presentation.



Photo: Hajime NAKANO on Flickr

However, these are not the only culinary traditions to be seen in Japan on the New Year.  On December 31st you might see long lines to...a soba noodle shops. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2013 Japan was the world’s seventh largest producer of buckwheat. Originated in China, the soba noodles have been brought to Japan around 10 000 to 300 years BC.

Why are the soba noodles popular on the New Year’s Eve? There is a belief that these long noodles made of buckwheat symbolize a long and smooth life. And buckwheat is actually very nutritious and good for your body. Soba eaten at the New Year’s eve is called toshikoshi soba (literally “jumping from old year into the new one”). You can choose hot or cold noodles and add them with various soups and flavours. It is also not too rare to see the soba noodles with pieces of duck meat in the soup.

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How to eat soba? Use the chopsticks, do not worry about the slurping sounds, as those are not regarded as rude as in other countries. Slurping can actually help you to cool the noodles and enhance the taste. It’s also fine to drink the broth straight from the bowl. Some restaurants serve the water (sobayu) that the noodles were cooked in.

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Of course, if you do not have time to wait up to 30 minutes to be served at the restaurant, you can simply cook soba at home. Make sure you do not overcook it and have it smooth and nice. Just as you want your life to be. Happy holidays!

Links for reference:

Washoku Designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Osechi - Japanese New Year's cuisine

Buckwheat Nutrition

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