Soba (そば ) is a noodle dish that has long been considered the “humble jewel” of the Japanese cuisine. Originating from China, Soba first started off as a porridge that the monks consumed before being brought to Japan at the end of the Jamon period (10000 BC to 300 BC). However, the way that soba is being eaten today originated in the mid Edo period (1603 to 1868). Nevertheless, it is
widely agreed that the art of soba noodles has its roots in Japan.
For the health gurus out there, it should be music to your ears (and stomach) that soba is one of the healthiest noodles around! Nutritionally, soba complements other grains such as white rice and wheat flour. It contains all eight amino acids including lysine (lacking in wheat flour) and thiamine
(lacking in white rice). It also has Vitamin B, which prevents heart disease. If you need more to convince you to choose soba as your favourite carb, it also contains rutin — a substance that prevents heart diseases and high blood pressure. Sounds like quite the deal to me!
One of the four noodles in Japan, soba noodles are made of a combination of buckwheat flour and regular wheat flour. Noodles made from 100% buckwheat flour tend to be more brittle, hence wheat flour is added to keep them from deteriorating. Depending on the chef, the percentage
composition of buckwheat generally ranges from 40%-100%. It is also interesting to note that the
colour of soba varies depending on the part of buckwheat used. If the middle part is grinded, the noodles tend to be whiter and sweeter. On the other hand, if the inner and outer layers of the plant are used, the noodles come out darker with a stronger aroma. If you are looking for the green
version, the noodles are known as cha soba. The green hue comes from the matcha powder added into the flour.
As with any other Japanese food, making soba is a time-consuming and delicate process that artisans spend years perfecting. The best soba is always made in small batches and sold fresh, but commercial soba is not too off the mark either. For Japanese all around the globe, the easy access to
both commercial and fresh soba has ensured that no matter where you are, you can always find your comfort food in the nearest supermarket.
ZARU SOBA (cold)
The most basic, and perhaps most common kind of soba is the zaru soba. Served on a traditional basket known as a zaru, it is accompanied with a chilled concentrated dipping sauce known as
tsuyu and some nori seaweed on top of the noodles. Tsuyu is a mixture of soup stock, water and mirin. Sometimes, it also contains soy sauce and dashi. On the side, grated wasabi, spring onions and daikon radish are presented to be added into the sauce to enhance flavour.
If the soba is not served with nori seaweed on top, it is known as mori soba. The other ingredients remain the same.
KAKE SOBA (hot)
The direct alternative to Zaru soba is Kake soba. Instead of being served chilled, the noodles are served in a bowl of hot broth. The soup is made of the same ingredients as the tsuyu, except that it is in a lower concentration. The dish itself has a mild taste, but is usually enhanced with sliced spring onions and some shichimi red pepper flakes. Occasionally, it may also come with a slice of Japanese fish cake. It was said to have been invented in the Edo period, as a fast food for delivery package workers to eat for lunch as the noodles and soup were already put together.
NANBAN SOBA (hot)
For all meat lovers, this hot soba is for you — the broth is generously infused with duck meat and green onions, giving it a delicious kick. Other variations of the soba include chicken instead of duck.
Fun fact: standard onions used to be used instead of green onions. However, in the Edo period, when the Europeans came, they traded standard onions for green onions. These Europeans were known as the nanban (foreign people). Hence, the name of the soba!
TEMPURA SOBA (hot/cold)
With tempura as a staple of Japanese food, it is no wonder that it also comes with either hot or cold soba. The dish originates from the Edo period. Back then, a more premium version would have been the ebi-ten, soba topped with shrimp tempura. Typically, the shrimp tempura is served on top of the
hot broth, allowing the batter to soak in the tastiness of the broth.
Now, other types of tempura to top the soba also exist. One popular variation is known as kaikiage — a vegetable and shrimp mix fried to resemble a deep fried vegetable cake. To know whether the kaikiage soba is of good quality, look for whether the vegetables retain a certain sweetness in the
TANUKI SOBA (hot/cold)
Generously topped with crunchy bits of tempura batter, this soba can either be served hot or cold.
Similarly, it is referred to differently in Osaka as Haikara soba. It is known to be one of the most affordable soba options around, and makes for a quick lunch treat.
KITSUNE SOBA (hot/cold)
This soba comes with a thin sheet of aburaage (tofu) on top of the broth. Available almost everywhere in Japan, it is interesting to note that different districts call it different names. For instance, in Osaka, it is referred to as “tanuki soba”.
Fun fact: In Japan, it is said that foxes (kitsune) especially love the sweet tofu. Hence, the name!
SANSAI SOBA (hot/cold)
In Japanese, sansai (山菜 ) literally means “edible wild plants”. Hence, it should be no surprise that these are key ingredients in soba! Zenmai (royal fern), takenoko (bamboo root) and other wild plants are gathered and generously served in the tempura soup. As this is a rarer version of
tempura, they may not be found in all menus. If you have the opportunity to visit the more mountainous regions of Japan, then this dish is a must try.
For the cold version of the dish, sansai is served as a tempura dish on the side.
TSUKIMI SOBA (hot/cold)
For the adventurous, tsukimi soba comes topped with one key ingredient: a raw egg.
The egg gives an extra layer of texture to the dish. However, for those with a weak stomach or a distaste for raw food, you might want to give this a miss.
Fun fact: tsukimi literally translates to mean “moon watching”. Hence, the egg yolk is meant to represent the moon. I suppose by eating this, it could also pass off as low-budget stargazing.
TORORO SOBA (hot/cold)
For those looking for a departure from the more common types of soba, you could give tororo soba a try. The dish features grated raw yam, either on top of the noodles or in a small dish at the side.
The stickiness and acquired taste of the yam perfectly complements the texture of the soba, making this dish one for the ages.
HOW TO EAT SOBA
As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Depending on how your soba is served, there are differing ways to eat it.
Like all noodles in Japan, it is considered polite to slurp your noodles as it gives an indication to the chef that you are enjoying your meal. Practically, it also has benefits. Slurping the noodles allow it to cool down faster as it reaches your mouth, all while enhancing the flavour of the dish. In very
traditional Japanese eateries, hot soba is not served with a spoon. After eating the noodles, you can lift the bowl and drink the soup directly from it.
As mentioned earlier, cold soba is served on a bamboo tray known as a zaru. Occasionally, the noodles are accompanied with ice cubes to keep the noodles chilled as you enjoy your meal. In order to fully enjoy the cold soba, you must first take a few simple steps:
- Mix in the green onions and wasabi (optional, but recommended) into the tsuyu. This will give the dipping sauce an extra kick.
- Take a few strands of the noodles and dip them into the sauce.
In traditional eateries, sometimes the tsuyu comes with an additional pot of “cloudy” water. This is the water used to boil the soba, and is known as sobayu. The sobayu is said to contain fiber (helps indigestion) and helps to lower blood pressure. On top of that, it contains the same nutrients that
soba has. To finish your dipping sauce, you can pour some sobayu in and adjust it accordingly to fit your tastebuds.