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Toshikoshi Soba (New Year’s Soba)

‘Despite my long introduction to this beloved dish, this is a relatively quick meal to put together,’ says Emiko Davies 

I wanted to include this recipe because this is a dish I like to make every New Year’s Eve (and not only then). The New Year celebration is so important in Japanese culture and so – of course – the food is too, much like Christmas is in Western cultures. Colourful and symbolic dishes are made to celebrate health and good fortune in a meal called Osechi Ryori.

These special foods can take days to prepare in advance. They get packed into lacquered boxes called jubako, that are stacked on top of each other in a few layers, to share with the whole family on New Year’s Day.

Living so far away from my family in Australia and Japan, I don’t get to have Osechi Ryori often, but I started making it myself to feel closer to my mother as she was preparing hers. We would swap messages about what we were making, what she is putting in her jubako this year, how she makes Namasu (page 118) and reminiscing about Obaachan’s kuromame (sweet black beans – still one of my favourite things ever).

But I soon realised it was like preparing a whole Christmas meal for myself (my sommelier husband is always working on New Year’s Eve and unfortunately some of these very special dishes aren’t favourites of my children – yet) and eventually I scaled things down to just toshikoshi soba, and it is a tradition that has stuck. It is so easy to prepare and even easier to eat.

The tradition of eating this dish for New Year’s Eve dates back to old Edo, when it was said that eating soba noodles, which cut very easily with the teeth, represents letting go of the past, and because buckwheat can survive under harsh conditions, it also represents resilience for the coming year – all things that I can get behind as we go into a new year.


The most traditional Tokyo-style sobais made with 2 parts wheat flour to 8 parts
buckwheat flour, known as 2:8 in Japanese,or ni-hachi. You should look for soba that is made with a majority of buckwheat flour – you can even find soba made with 100 percent buckwheat, which is a gluten-free noodle. For more about the traditional Japanese New Year meal, Namiko Chen has an incredible resource for making a full Osechi Ryori on her blog, Just One Cookbook, and in a dedicated ebook.

Dashi Stock

Dashi is probably the most important recipe to know how to make in Japanese cuisine – it is the backbone to so many dishes. It is easy to buy dashi in powder form to dissolve in hot water, or even in liquid form, also to be diluted, but be sure these only contain two ingredients, otherwise making a possibly better-quality dashi at home is so incredibly easy and it only takes minutes to make. My obaachan would make dashi with only fish, a stock known as mizudashi. She would use niboshi (small, dried silver fish – usually baby anchovies or sardines), and would first painstakingly remove the head and entrails so there was no bitterness, then simply place the fish in a pot of water overnight to infuse. 

Each cook has their own way to make dashi; what usually changes is how long the katsuobushi flakes are infused for, whether or not it is brought to boiling point (some say boiling ruins the flavour of this delicate stock), and whether or not to strain or squeeze (this last about keeping the stock perfectly clear). I think the key to a good dashi is the kombu – an umami-rich seaweed, this will lend depth of flavour. What you are doing here is heating the kombu very slowly to draw out this umami before the water gets too hot and begins to boil, which makes the kombu slimy. You want to remove the kombu before this happens. Many good cooks like to simply place the kombu in water overnight, like a cold infusion, and heat it up the next morning. If you are diligent enough to have remembered to do that, it is a great idea for extra flavour.

This recipe is an extract from GOHAN: Everyday Japanese Cooking by Emiko Davies (Smith Street Books, £26) 


4 extra-large raw prawns (jumbo shrimp)
50 g (⅓ cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
80 ml (⅓ cup) chilled water
160 g (5½ oz) spinach
vegetable oil, for frying
200 g (7 oz) soba noodles
2 spring onions (scallions), finely chopped
shichimi togarashi (optional)

For the Broth

1.125 litres (4½ cups) Dashi
375 ml (1½ cups) Mentsuyu sauce

For the Dashi

1 piece of kombu (dried kelp), about 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long or 10 g (¼ oz)
10 g (1 packed cup) katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)

For the Mentsuyu

60 ml (¼ cup) sake
125 ml (½ cup) mirin
125 ml (½ cup) soy sauce
1 square of kombu, about 5 cm (2 in) in length or 5 g (¼ oz)
10 g (1 packed cup) katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)
  1. Methods

    Step 1

    Carefully remove the heads and shells of the prawns, but leave the tails on. Remove the dark digestive tract with a skewer or a toothpick, pulling it out rather than cutting down the spine. You can help them keep their shape by making some small incisions along the belly side so they won’t curl up when cooking. Coat in a sprinkling of the flour (the rest you will use for the batter) and set aside.

    Step 2

    Make a batter by mixing the rest of the flour with the measured cold water (my mother likes to use sparkling water). Don’t over-mix and don’t worry if there are lumps. Let the mixture chill in the fridge until needed.

    Step 3

    Prepare the spinach by blanching in boiling salted water for no more than 1 minute, or until wilted. Drain and plunge into ice-cold water to stop the cooking. Squeeze out any excess water very well, then chop into 4 equal portions and set aside.

    Step 4

    To make the broth, bring the ingredients to a simmer in a pan, then keep warm. Prepare a small-medium pan that can hold the prawns in their entire length with enough vegetable oil so that the prawns can float (a depth of about 5 cm/2 in). Heat over a medium–high heat until the temperature comes to about 170ºC (338°F). It should be ready when a drop of the batter is immediately surrounded by many tiny, vigorous little bubbles.

    Step 5

    Make the tempura prawns by dipping the prawns, from the tail end, into the cold batter, then into the hot oil. Fry for about 1 minute or until the batter is crisp and puffed. You could do two at a time. They shouldn’t brown, but stay pale in colour. Transfer with a slotted spoon to drain on a wire rack while you fry the others. While you are doing this, catch any little drips and blobs of batter that land in the oil before they turn brown – scooping them out with a slotted spoon or a spider and transferring them to drain on kitchen paper – these are called tenkasu and should never go to waste, they add fluffiness to okonomiyaki and takoyaki and make a favourite topping for noodles, too. In fact, you could sprinkle them into this soba as well.

    Step 6

    Put a pan of water (no need to salt) on to boil for the noodles. Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions (it’s usually less than 5 minutes).

    Step 7

    When ready, drain the noodles (in soba restaurants, the cooking water is precious, it is called sobayu and makes a delicious warm drink that is served at the end of the meal). Rinse them briefly in a bowl of cool water (or plunge in a bowl of ice-cold water if preparing cold noodles) to stop the cooking and tighten the noodle.

    Step 8

    Immediately divide the soba among four deep soup bowls. Pour over the hot broth, top with a portion of blanched spinach and a fried prawn, then sprinkle over the spring onions. Serve right away. If you like heat, add some shichimi togarashi.

  2. Methods for the Dashi

    Step 9

    Wipe the kombu with a clean cloth and place in a saucepan with 1 litre (4 cups)of cold water. Leave to steep, if you can, for at least 30 minutes (or overnight).Set the pan over a low heat and warm until the kombu softens and the water is about to start boiling (you will see lots of tiny bubbles appear around thee dges of the pan), about 10 minutes. Remove the kombu at this point – set aside if you want to make furikake with it (see opposite).

    Step 10

    Turn the heat up ever so slightly to medium and add the katsuobushi to the kombu-infused water. Watch carefully – just as it looks as if it is about to boil, turn off the heat, skim off any scum that rises to the top of the stock, and let it steep for 5–10 minutes.

    Step 11

    Strain the dashi through a fine-mesh sieve and it is ready to use, or store ina jar in the fridge for up to a week.

    Step 12

    Don’t throw out the precious leftover kombu and katsuobushi – they can be used to make furikake, a delicious seasoning for rice or for mixing through onigiri.

  3. For the Mentsuyu

    Step 13

    Place everything in a saucepan, bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 5 minutes.

    Step 14

    Strain the sauce to remove the kombu and katsuobushi (use these in Furikake, page 31). If not using immediately, pour the mentsuyu into a jar or airtight container and keep refrigerated for up to 4 weeks.

    Step 15

    Before serving, you should always dilute this sauce: use 1 part mentsuyu to 3 parts water (hot or cold, depending on how you plan to use it), or to suit your taste.

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