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Japan is gearing up for a much less busy and less festive end of year period.

According to a survey of more than 10,000 companies conducted in mid-November, 87% are not planning to hold their usual bōnenkai (year-end parties), or even their shinnenkai (New Year’s parties). Companies in the Hokkaido, Kanto and Kansai regions are even less likely to go ahead with these normally boisterous occasions.

So you may be out of luck if your usual way of ushering out the old year was to have a big party on New Year’s Eve. In 2020, the best plan may be to enjoy a quiet evening watching TV under a kotatsu (heated table) while slurping a warm bowl of toshikoshi (“year-crossing”) soba.

Eating a bowl of soba noodles to mark the end of the old year and pass into the new is a tradition that became widely established in the early 19th century, although its roots may be even older than that. There are several theories as to why soba was chosen as the noodle of choice for the season. One is that buckwheat is a symbol of strength, since the grain is very resilient to cold and bad weather; another is that the long, thin noodles signify a long — yet quiet and uneventful — life.

But today, the best symbolic reason to eat soba noodles is that they can be easily bitten, representing a clean, no-regrets break with the ending year. Other names for the year-end bowl of soba include nengiri (“cut off the year”) soba and engiri (“cut off relationships”) soba, both of which seem apropos, too.

There are really no rules for what goes into a bowl of toshikoshi soba. It can be very simple, topped with chopped leek and yuzu citrus peel. But since you may want to funnel your party energy into something more extravagant, this recipe is for a version that includes duck prepared nanban style, with the sweetness of winter leek enhancing the rich fat of the duck. If you can’t get a whole duck breast, use the pre-sliced duck that’s available at most supermarkets. It’s a comforting dish best enjoyed slowly, perhaps with some sake, while you quietly plan ahead for a better 2021.

Comfort food: For a much simpler toshikoshi (“year-crossing”) soba, serve the noodles and soup topped with chopped leek or green onion, shredded yuzu citrus peel and shichimi tōgarashi spice mix. | MAKIKO ITOH
Comfort food: For a much simpler toshikoshi (“year-crossing”) soba, serve the noodles and soup topped with chopped leek or green onion, shredded yuzu citrus peel and shichimi tōgarashi spice mix. | MAKIKO ITOH

Recipe: How to make toshikoshi (“year-end”) soba with duck

Serves 2 to 3

Prep: 10 mins., plus the time to pre-soak the konbu seaweed; cook: 40 mins.

 

For the soup:

1 15-centimeter square piece (about 3 grams) dried konbu seaweed

12 to 15 grams (1 large handful) dried katsuobushi (skipjack tuna)

700 milliliters water

3 tablespoons mirin (sweet, fermented cooking alcohol)

3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

240 grams (2 bundles) dried soba noodles

 

200 grams duck breast, with the skin on

Salt and pepper

2 medium-thick Japanese leeks, white parts only

A few sprigs of fresh mitsuba (Japanese parsley)

Shichimi tōgarashi chili spice mix, to taste

 

1. Make the dashi stock. Put the konbu seaweed piece in the water and leave to soak for at least 30 minutes or overnight. Heat the water until it is just about to boil. Add the katsuobushi and turn off the heat. Leave until the katsuobushi has sunk to the bottom of the pan. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and return the stock to the pot.

2. Add the mirin and heat through, then add the soy sauce.

3. Season both sides of the duck breast with salt and pepper. Place in a frying pan over medium heat with the skin side down, and cook until the skin is golden brown. Turn over and cook for three to four more minutes on the other side. Take the duck out of the pan and wrap in a double layer of aluminum foil. Leave to rest and cook with residual heat. (If using pre-sliced duck, season on both sides and pan-fry for a couple of minutes.)

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and cook for about seven minutes (or follow the instructions on the packet). Drain the noodles, and rinse in plenty of cold water. Drain again.

5. While the noodles are cooking, cut the white part of the leeks into 5-centimeter pieces. Pour off most of the duck fat from the frying pan and pan-fry the leek over medium heat, turning frequently, until browned and soft.

6. Slice the duck thinly, and roughly cut the mitsuba.

7. Bring another large pot of water to a boil, and have the serving bowls ready. In a separate pot, heat the dashi. Divide the noodles into two to three portions, and put each portion, one at a time, in the hot water briefly to heat them through. Put the noodles in the bowls, and ladle the dashi over them. Top with the duck slices, leek and some mitsuba. Sprinkle with shichimi tōgarashi to taste.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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