Soba: Traditional Japanese Noodles
When the urge to eat noodles arises, the basic choices are: ramen Chinese noodles; udon wheat noodles—or soba buckwheat noodles. And because soba is many things to many people, the options only multiply.
Prior to the middle ages, soba flour was simply formed into balls and boiled. Thanks to the sobagiri method, soba noodles in their present form first appeared during the sixteenth century: buckwheat and wheat flour are mixed with water to make dough, kneaded, rolled out, then cut into narrow strips.
During the Edo era (1603-1867), these noodles became popular with the common people. Vendors toted their carts and cooking gear around town to serve up the long, thin soba noodles. Creative variations emerged after the Meiji era (1867-1911) as soba makers introduced innovative toppings and accompanying soy-sauce based soba-tsuyu dipping sauces.
There are several types of soba including inaka (dark) soba made from buckwheat milled with the outer coating, and gozen (white) soba made from milled kernels. Both are eaten either chilled, dipped in cool soba-tsuyu, or as warm shiru-soba served with slightly diluted tsuyu in a deep donburi bowl.
Soba is eaten in myriad ways, including chilled zaru or mori soba presented on a bamboo tray; ten-zaru, chilled noodles with tempura; simple kake-soba in hot tsuyu; cool oroshi soba topped with grated daikon; hot tempura soba; or kamo-nanban, topped with duck meat and Japanese long onion.
Not surprisingly, there are as many types of soba restaurants as there are varieties of soba. Soba shops can be both eatery and pub, serving drinks to enjoy while waiting for a bite to eat. For commuters on the run, stands at train stations offer moderately priced bowls at around 300 yen (US$3.00). There are also serious restaurants that serve soba in elegant kaiseki style.
There is a tradition and a craft to making truly delicious soba. Talented soba “masters” use choice buckwheat flour and water, and adjust the amounts of water and how they knead the dough depending on temperature and humidity; they also serve their own style of tsuyu to create a singular taste experience.
Buckwheat is abundant in B vitamins and nutrients, but some of these are lost during cooking, thus the custom of sipping leftover soba-tsuyu thinned with the hot water used to boil the noodles—a tasty and nutritious conclusion to a soba meal.
Soba can be an obsession. Japan’s soba lovers hold gatherings around the country to exchange restaurant tips; others collect soba-ware: soba-choko (cups for soba-tsuyu), seiro bamboo trays and yuto serving vessels that hold the hot water used to boil the noodles. Some soba lovers have even turned to the craft of soba-making and enjoy eating their own soba.
Soba traditions run deep in Japanese culture. To signal the close of the old year, toshikoshi-soba promises a long prosperous life, symbolized by its long thin noodles. Playful wanko-soba, a northern specialty, is presented as bite-sized servings in miniature bowls, accompanied by a variety of toppings; diners are expected to empty as many bowls as possible.
Such customs only underscore the reasons for the fundamental appeal of soba: its versatility and flavor. Whether dished out hot or cold, with toppings aplenty or alone with a simple tsuyu, the healthy soba noodle served in its many forms is an essential element of Japanese food culture.