Learning > Recipes

How to break the spell of a bad 2019

Eat a bowl of toshikoshi soba, a dish filled with symbolism that the Japanese eat on New Year's Eve

Tan Hsueh Yun on 29 Dec 2019

The Straits Times


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I have never been so eager for a year to end.


Of course, every time a new one rolls around, there are challenges, ups and downs, good and bad. We would have learnt long ago to take it all in our stride.


But 2019 has been ridiculous. Cue exploding head emoji.


I won't bore you with the details, but explosion after explosion left me battered and depleted. Through it all, I kept my game face on. Doing that continues to be a daily act of self-preservation.


Lizzo describes my ritual perfectly in her song Good As Hell, though we are talking about different circumstances: I do my hair toss/Check my nails/Baby how you feelin'/Feeling good as hell.


I am not the only one who has had a tough year. One friend is still reeling from two very serious blows. When we finally catch up, I try to be constructive.


"This too, shall pass."


"Well it's passing like a d**n kidney stone. Cannot pass fast enough," he said. "You get one more month to mess with me, 2019. Then leave us alone in 2020."


Another friend feels exhausted, like me.


"It has been a ride," he said, restrained as always.


We make plans to catch up. There will be cocktails. There will be giggles. What better therapy is there?


Why, I wonder, does life, the universe, or whatever is controlling the strings, lob bombs at us? Am I supposed to be learning something from all this? What? That life is never perfect? That bad things happen to good people?


I learnt those lessons a long time ago, universe. Move on. Teach me new things, like how to deal with a surfeit of good fortune, why don't you?


Of course, the year hasn't been a complete disaster. At least two good things have come out of it.


Quite unexpectedly, I rekindle the love I have for the job I do. I rediscover the thrill of chasing stories and the singular pleasure of connecting with the most important people in my work universe - readers.


Work has saved me from going crazy. Work has been my refuge when life was in ruins. All the work I put into work has paid off in ways that are beautiful to me.


The second thing would be the kindness of people who started out as strangers. They appear out of nowhere. And proceed, with precision and finesse, to fix what had been horribly broken.


What is all in a day's work to them has meant the world to me.


That I can write about any of this with equanimity is due in large part to how these six people - yes, it takes a village - have put me in a better head space.


I am not entirely sure I deserve them, but am grateful for everything they have done and continue to do.


My friend wants to bathe in champagne on New Year's Eve to rid himself of the bad juju. I am going to do the exact same thing in a different way: eat a bowl of toshikoshi soba.


This is a dish the Japanese eat on New Year's Eve and it is filled with symbolism.


Long noodles symbolise a long life, like it does for other Asians; soba noodles break easily, the way we want to break with the bad stuff; and buckwheat, from which the noodles are made, is a resilient plant that survives harsh growing conditions.


All the soba needs is dashi made from scratch. You deserve better than the instant stuff, so buy good kombu (kelp) and good katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and make a golden stock for the noodles.


The toppings can include tempura prawns and grilled fish. There is no way I am deep-frying on New Year's Eve, so I am opting for ingredients I like: aburaage, which are tofu puffs that soak up the dashi; slices of lotus root to add crunch; shimeji mushrooms; kamakobo or Japanese fish cake; and a shower of negi (Welsh onion).


Some noodles I will slurp for longevity, others I will bite into to break with the bad.


If you want to continue with this nonsense, 2020, know I am not going down without a fight.


But there is every chance I will not be beaten down. Maybe I'll kick your bombs right back to hell, where they belong.


I am spoiling for a fight. So bring it. I have never been so eager to start a new year and a new decade.






  • 30g kombu (below left)
  • 100g katsuobushi (below right) 
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 pieces aburaage (Japanese fried tofu puffs)
  • 2 stalks negi 1 block kamakobo (Japanese fish cake), 170g to 200g
  • 4 1cm-thick slices lotus root
  • 200g shimeji mushroom
  • 400g soba




1. Pour 3 litres of water into a large pot. Put in the kombu to soak for at least an hour. I usually leave it to soak overnight. When the soaking time is up, set the pot over medium heat. When small bubbles start to float up, remove the kombu. You can use it to make tsukudani or second dashi. Check Google for recipes.


2. Add the katsuobushi to the pot and bring the stock to a boil. Then, switch off the heat and let the bonito flakes sink to the bottom of the pot. Strain the stock. The bonito flakes can also be reused for tsukudani and second dashi. Pour the dashi into a smaller pot, add salt to taste.


3. Pour boiling water over the aburaage to get rid of some of the oil. Pat dry with paper towels and cut each piece in half on the diagonal. Set aside.


4. Finely slice the negi, including the green part. Slice the kamakobo as thickly or thinly as you like. I like mine 0.5cm-thick. Set both aside.


5. Bring the dashi to a boil, add the lotus root and cook until it reaches your desired doneness. Remove from the dashi and set aside. Slice the root off the mushrooms and divide into large clumps. Poach the mushrooms in the dashi for three to five minutes. Remove and set aside. Keep the dashi hot.


6. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the soba and cook according to the instructions on the packet. I like mine cooked four to five minutes. Drain the soba and divide it among four bowls. Top each bowl with two pieces of aburaage, one slice of lotus root, slices of kamakobo, mushrooms and negi.


7. Ladle hot dashi over the noodles and serve immediately. Use leftover dashi for miso soup or ozoni, a soup the Japanese have on New Year's Day.


Serves four


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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