What is soba?
A traditional Japanese noodle dish
Traditional Japanese noodle dishes include udon, ramen, and soba. The dish with the oldest history among these three is soba, with there even being a theory that it had been eaten before the Nara period (710-794).
Buckwheat flour, made by processing buckwheat seeds, is mixed well with water and tsunagi, material used to help connect soba noodles, such as flour. This is then rolled thinly and cut into a thin rectangular shape to make soba noodles. In a soba dish, this then is boiled and eaten with soba-tsuyu (soba sauce) of your liking. It is a healthy Japanese food that is liked by men, women, and children alike.
Furthermore, as an old Japanese tradition, toshikoshi (year-crossing) soba is eaten on New Year’s Eve. Since soba noodles are easier to cut than other noodles, this is a tradition that has continued since the Edo period (1603-1868) to signify “cutting away the bad luck for the year”.
How to eat soba
There are three major types of soba
1. Mori soba and Zaru soba
This is the most typical manner of eating and also the oldest manner of eating.
Soba that has been boiled is then cooled and washed to remove the slack. The noodles are then served on a rectangular steamer or sieve basket made from bamboo or wood, with a bamboo hurdle placed on the bottom of the container.
It comes with soba-tsuyu (dipping sauce) in a separate small bowl called a soba choko. With chopsticks, a bite-sized amount of soba is scooped up and dipped in tsuyu before being eaten.
These types of soba were given the names mori (served on a flat basket or a plate) soba and zaru (topped with shredded nori seaweed) soba, because of such serving and eating methods.
There are different types of tsuyu and condiments. The common combination is cold soba-tsuyu made from katsuo dashi soup stock, leek, and wasabi. This is a simple preparation method that is widely adopted as a combination that enables the eater to taste the most of soba.
There is also kamo (duck) seiro, cold soba noodles with hot duck meat broth on the side. Even though it is still a zaru soba dish, kamo seiro is popular for having a different taste.
2. Kake soba
Unlike mori soba and zaru soba, it is served as a noodle soup in a bowl of hot tsuyu.
Condiments that are frequently used are naganegi onions and shichimi pepper (a blend of seven types of spices) chili. Thinly cut skin of citrus fruits, such as yuzu, is added in order to make the flavor stand out.
3. Bukkake soba
With bukkake soba, the noodles are washed in cold water to remove the slackness once they have been boiled. Ingredients such as cucumbers, thinly shredded egg omelette, boiled fish paste, and wakame seaweed are placed on top. Afterward, tsuyu from another container is poured over noodles.
The name “bukkake soba” comes from pouring the tsuyu over noodles (bukkakeru). The bowl used for bukkake soba has certain characteristics; large donburi bowls and shallow plates are used to serve bukkake soba. In some regions, soba is served on small plates, like with Izumi soba and Izumo soba.
The serving style is similar to chilled Chinese noodles. This is a soba dish that is often eaten during summer.
A traditional Japanese dish that has been passed on since the Nara period (710-794).
It is said that soba was introduced before the Nara period. Initially, buckwheat seeds were eaten whole, cooked to make porridge, or processed to buckwheat flour and mixed with water to bake. It is said that the current eating method of soba was created in the 16th or the 17th century.
At that time, noodles were made from wheat flour, which was expensive. In order to lower the cost, cheaper buckwheat flour was mixed in instead. Thereafter, soba came to be made widely as noodles that only use buckwheat flour.
In order to distinguish them from sobakaki (which are larger in size than soba noodles and are ball-shaped), which had existed before being cut into a noodle shape, soba was initially called sobakiri. This name is still used in some regions.
Craftsmanship of handmade soba and 100% soba for aficionados
Soba is a popular dish well-liked by Japanese gourmands. It is famous for having chefs and aficionados that are particular about how the noodles are made and the percentage of buckwheat flour present.
In particular, noodles made by hand without using a machine are called teuchi soba and only those who have acquired specialized skills can be referred to as soba chefs.
The quality of buckwheat flour, the raw ingredient of soba noodles, and the outcome of each process influences the aroma, the sensation of swallowing soba, the appearance, and the texture (i.e., hardness), which all in turn affect the taste and flavor of soba. The profundity of soba has won the hearts and minds of many gourmands. There are also those who make their own soba noodles with the aim of making by themselves noodles that are of good quality. This has become a boom activity particularly among the baby-boomers, with soba master title certifications being held across Japan.
The ratio of buckwheat flour is another matter for consideration.
A famous example of this is towari or jyu-wari (100%) soba that does not use any tsunagi, such as flour, but is 100% made from buckwheat flour; nihachi (2:8) soba 2 parts buckwheat flour to 8 parts regular flour; and soto nihachi (outer 2:8) soba made from 10 parts buckwheat flour to 2 parts regular flour. Generally, the less tsunagi there is, the easier soba noodles become to cut and the more parched they become. Therefore, when you eat soba for the first time, it would be easier to eat soba with a low buckwheat flour ratio.
Soba culture developed around cold uplands.
1. Shinshu soba
Shinshu soba is one of the most famous types of soba in Japan. Only noodles that contain 40% or more buckwheat flour can be referred to as Shinshu soba. Since cold uplands are optimum for cultivating buckwheat, Shinshu, which meets this requirement, has been known as a famous production area of soba since the old days. Soba remains popular in the region, with soba festivals being held across Nagano prefecture. In particular, Matsumoto Soba Festival is extremely popular, with approximately 150,000 people attending the festival within three days.
2. Hitachi autumn soba
Hitachi autumn soba is a variety that was born by improving the native Kanasango variety found in the former Kanasango village (currently Hitachiota). It has been praised as the pinnacle of buckwheat, due to its uniformity and nice flavor, in which sweetness can be tasted. New soba, which can be harvested in autumn, is said to increase its sweetness specific to soba by having it matured during the harsh winter period. Therefore, matured soba is also called kan (cold) soba and is very popular.
3. Shonai soba
Shonai, known as the Soba Town, is a place with history where soba has been produced since the Edo period. The city aims to revitalize its soba production, by having facilities in the city where visitors can experience making soba noodles and holding events such as the New Soba Festival. The main soba that can be eaten in the city is the thick inaka (countryside) soba with a gummy texture. Despite this soba dish having a simple taste and texture, it has a profound flavor.
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- Soba and udon are usually compared as representative noodles of Japan. Soba is highly consumed in the Kanto region, while the Kansai region prefers udon.
- Usually served together with soba. Served separately from cold soba, and together with hot soba. Tempura is eaten after dipping in the soup stock.
- Different flavors can be enjoyed by pairing wasabi, green onions with cold soba, and red pepper, yuzu with hot soba.