In Japan, the end of the year brings the tradition of eating toshikoshi (year-bridging) soba. Historically, noodles on New Year's Eve were for luck and fortune; today, the length of the soba noodles represents hope for a long and healthy life. If you're not cooking soba at home, a number of Seattle restaurants will serve you a celebratory bowl of noodles on New Year's Eve at a decent price. But if you're willing to pay a little more, there's one place where you can enjoy the best.
At Miyabi 45th, there's a master soba-maker in the house. Mutsuko Soma makes noodles daily in traditional fashion, using a rolling pin and a soba knife, and these fresh noodles find their way on the menu in many interesting incarnations.
Miyabi 45th's soba can be had simply: cold, with a soy and dashi-based dipping sauce (tsuyu), or hot in a broth version of that same tsuyu. There are also a handful of bukkake-style options, featuring cold soba "splashed" with cold broth and a variety of toppings. And then there's the column of specialty soba items (served hot or cold), where you'll see ingredients like truffle, oyster, and matsutake mushrooms. This is also where you'll find Miyabi's signature dish, soba with duck and leek.
But when I think of toshikoshi soba, I think of Soba Ten Zaru ($18)—soba with a side of assorted seasonal tempura. Several components come out from the kitchen. In front of you sits a tangle of cold soba sitting on a zaru (a slotted bamboo tray). On the tempura plate are two shrimp, plus one each of parsnip, kabocha squash, renkon (lotus root), and eggplant that's finely sliced and slightly fanned. The final components are two sauces and a dish of "extras"—the green onions and wasabi go into the soba tsuyu, while the grated daikon goes into the tempura tsuyu (lighter than soba tsuyu, with dashi stronger than the soy).
While I like the added elements, this dish is all about the flavor and texture of the noodles, which is why I prefer cold soba over hot. The buckwheat noodles have an earthy taste and a not-too-firm, not-too-mushy texture. Dipping allows you to control your sauce intake, and I like the little zing from the green onion and the wasabi. The crunchy bites of tempura offer a nice break from the noodle-slurping.
Once you finish the food, one more item comes from the kitchen. A black lacquerware yuto with angled spout and handle contains sobayu, the murky white water in which the soba noodles cooked. You pour this into the remaining soba tsuyu, resulting in one last delicious treat while recapturing the nutrients and vitamins that the soba left behind in the water—reason, perhaps, why eating these noodles each New Year's Eve leads to a long and healthy life.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.