New Year Noodles (Toshikoshi Soba)
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Buckwheat noodles in broth, the traditional Japanese welcome to a new year, are a tasty component to the Masaki family's festive Shōgatsu feast.
For many of us, celebrating New Year’s Eve involves a house party with the typical appetizers and dips or maybe dinner and a movie. The younger crowd might opt for a night of drinks and dancing followed by an Uber ride home.
But at the Masaki home, New Year’s Eve is a varied banquet of Japanese delicacies lovingly prepared days in advance by the whole family. My good friend, Leslie Masaki, directs this culinary symphony. Each beautiful and detailed dish is rich in flavor and tradition. Leslie and husband, Stephen’s, New Year celebration is a feast for all the senses, and the St. Louis couple have shared it every year with friends and family since 2015, although they celebrated the new year in California in years past with his family.
Leslie and Stephen met while studying at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Stephen is a fourth-generation Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii. Leslie’s Jewish ancestors emigrated to the U.S. from Europe between 1860 and 1890. They have successfully blended their individual stories into a rich heritage for their two children, Hale (a college senior) and Sela (a high school senior), and this is evident around their family table.
She emphasizes, "in our #VeryAsian Jewish household, food is a mash-up of all things all the time.”
“We combine all of our traditions into whatever we’re doing, such as Matsurukkah, a mash-up of ‘festival’ in Japanese and Chanukah, where we eat traditional Japanese foods fried in oil for Chanukah. It’s usually yaki soba and tako yaki (ball-shaped Japanese snack made with okonomiyaki batter and filled with octopus in the center) with latkes,” she says.
New Year (Shōgatsu or Oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. All duties and responsibilities are completed by the end of the year so the new can begin fresh. Japanese celebrations begin New Year’s Eve and continue for three days. Leslie says prep for their celebration (not including shopping) starts three to five days before Dec. 31. And while New Year’s Eve is celebrated with friends and extended family, the remaining days of Oshogatsu is celebrated with their immediate family.
A mother's influence
An accomplished home cook, Leslie says her mother, Barbara Weil, introduced her to the kitchen.
“I was about 9 or 10,” Leslie says. “I distinctly remember being in the kitchen with her and learning the basics. Later, it expanded to learning traditional family recipes like brisket, chocolate ice box cake (a recipe from my great grandmother), and other holiday dishes like potato latkes.”
When Leslie and Stephen married, another matriarch—his mom, Betty Masaki—taught her about Japanese and Hawaiian cuisine. Betty was a culinary instructor for 35 years and often taught Japanese women in Japan and Hawaii how to make traditional food for New Year.
“Every time I was with her, I tried to learn three recipes,” Leslie says. “The lessons would begin with going to the Japanese grocery store and learning what to buy (before English was included on labels). I still buy those same brands today. Those lessons included preparing for New Year. I had the opportunity and honor of helping prepare for New Year multiple times. Now that she is gone, I consult with my sister-in-law, Jaynie Mitchell, if I have a question. We always compare our tables, which usually look very similar!”
And the New Year table in a Japanese home is very intentional in its preparation and presentation.
Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese New Year foods. Leslie says Osechi are easily recognizable by their special boxes called jūbako, which resemble bentō boxes. Like bentō boxes, jūbako are often kept stacked before and after use.
“Our table resembles Oshechi by using my lacquered boxes and antique Japanese dishes from Steve’s folks, other Japanese dishes, and my vintage Lazy Susan from my grandmother,” she says.
For the Masaki family, osechi-ryōri are:
Black bean/Kuromame: くろまめ (koo-rō-mā-meh), represents good health and robust potential for the eater
Lotus root/Renkon: レンコン (re-n-kō-n), boiled and sliced so that the delicate wheel of life shape is enhanced
Burdock root/Gobo: ゴボウ (gō-bō), the roots strike deep into the soil, just like how family roots can be deeply set
Rice cake/Mochi: もち (mō-chee), longevity/long life
Bamboo shoot/Takenoko: たけのこ (tā-keh-nō-kō) believed to attract good luck and prosperity.
Citrus orange/Dai dai: だいだい (da-yee-da-yee), generation to generation, good wishes for a strong and prosperous life
Dried persimmon/Hoshigaki: ほしがき (hō-she-gā-kee), health and success in life, transformation
New Year’s noodles/Toshikoshi soba: としこしそば (tō-she-kō-she-sō-bā), long noodles for long life, buckwheat noodles for strength and resiliency
Mirror rice cake/Kagami mochi: かがみもち (kā-gā-mee-mō-chee), mochi gives strength, 2 mochi discs represent going and coming years/yin and yang/the human heart/the moon and sun, resembles old-style copper mirror, hence "mirror rice cake"
To that list, Leslie adds a selection of favorite Hawaiian New Year dishes like macaroni salad, teriyaki chicken, and some type of Jell-O. Seafood rounds out the traditional foods (Leslie offers fresh crab and house-smoked salmon).
Leslie’s New Year’s noodles/toshikoshi soba are inspired by recipes from the Japan Centre and Alton Brown—no surprise from the queen of mash-ups. While the noodles are the symbolic star of this dish, it’s the broth I love most. Savory and complex flavors are so comforting for a winter meal. I think it’s the marriage of complex with familiar that makes Asian cuisine so popular. Using St. Louis as an example, two of eight best restaurants that opened in 2022, according to Sauce magazine, are Asian eateries.
With the list of unfamiliar ingredients, Japanese cooking may seem daunting to many home cooks, but Leslie suggests getting a good cookbook like this one from the St. Louis chapter of Japanese American Citizens League. Learning where to source ingredients is another helpful tip.
The New Year’s noodles would be a good recipe to start with. Ingredients can be found locally either at your grocer, at an Asian grocery, or online. For example, Leslie uses a powder to start her dashi soup stock.
In addition to sharing their culinary heritage with friends, Stephen has directed the Seinen Kai food booth at the annual Japanese Festival since 1993. Their entire family pitches in to organize an army of volunteers and to make the yaki soba and okonomiyaki. Stephen and Leslie really are local culinary ambassadors. A St. Louis tradition since 1977, the festival is held over Labor Day weekend at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
This New Year, add their Toshikoshi Soba to your menu and begin 2023 with the intention to expand your table with food from other countries. Food, after all, is the gateway to discovering and respecting cultures different than our own.
About the blog
Three Women in the Kitchen is an award-winning food blog offering today’s home cooks comforting, hearty recipes with a personal touch. The website also pays tribute to Deborah’s mother, Katie Reinhardt, and paternal grandmother, Dorothy Reinhardt (the “three women” in the kitchen). Whether you’re an experienced or a novice cook, you’ll find inspiration here to feed your families and warm your heart. Subscribe today so you won’t miss a single delicious detail.