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Tasty, Easy and Healthy: It's Soba Time!

Updated on March 19, 2018
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Living in Japan means enjoying the food! It is delicious, healthy and . . . not always Japanese. Here's what it's all about.

Soba noodles, up close
Soba noodles, up close | Source

What is soba?

Today, soba is one of the most popular dishes in Japan. Simply put, soba is noodles made from buckwheat flour. For centuries soba has been enjoyed all over Japan and is even gaining attention in the West. It is eaten many ways, hot and cold.

One of the most popular dishes is known as zaru soba. This is chilled buckwheat noodles enjoyed with a cold dipping sauce. This dipping sauce is known as tsuyu. It's made of dashi, soy sauce and mirin. Most people mix a little wasabi and negi (Welsh onions) into their tsuyu.

Just pick some noodles up with your chopsticks, dip it into your tsuyu and eat. Umai! (Delicious!)

Buckwheat in Japan: a short history

Zaru soba at home
Zaru soba at home | Source

Buckwheat originates from mainland Asia but has been grown in Japan for thousands of years.

Centuries ago in feudal Japan, farmers had to pay part of their rice harvests to their daimyo (lord). However, in some parts of the country rice was difficult to grow. These yields were low so taxes were high.

So it was buckwheat to the rescue! Buckwheat is a short-season crop. It does well in the highlands and also in less fertile areas. Farmers were able to pay in buckwheat instead of rice.

Also, buckwheat is a good source of B-vitamins and several trace minerals. B1 (thiamine) is especially important because it is not present in rice. Buckwheat has other vitamins and minerals that are lost when rice is milled.

This superfood is also high in fiber and plant protein. For the locals who love their white rice three times a day, eating soba now and then is a good idea. Today, it's easy to see soba become an important part of Japanese culture.

The tradition of soba

Tempura soba at home on New Year's Eve
Tempura soba at home on New Year's Eve | Source

Over time soba has gained mythic properties as well. Japanese people eat these buckwheat noodles on New Year's Eve. This tradition is called "toshikoshi-soba." The idea is that the long, thin noodles represent long life and good fortune for the next year.

Take a look at the photo above. Next to my hot tempura soba, you'll see another New Year's tradition: kuromame. Kuromame is black soy beans cooked with soy sauce and sugar.

Believe it or not, there is a special way to eat soba. No matter what time of year, Japanese people love to slurp their noodles and are not shy to encourage foreigners to give it a try. By slurping, the diner is able to better appreciate the aroma which enhances the taste. Also, by slurping, we can draw in more of that delicious tsuyu sauce.

My advice to you? No matter where you are, if you paid for your soba, then do it your way. If you are a guest of a local and said local recommends you slurp, then give it your best. Either way, if you are in a noodle shop in Japan and everyone around you is slurping then please don't judge.

So, the question is: do I slurp my noodles? Well, I slurp everything so I guess the answer is yes.

Soba today

Standing up and eating soba
Standing up and eating soba | Source

Noodle stands (like the one above) are all over Japan, especially in urban areas and train stations. Because there are no seats available here, customers stand and eat at the counter.

These stands are all over the place because they take up little space and are easy to set up. They encourage customers who are hungry but in a hurry. You'll find something tasty and filling along with a bottle of green tea for under 1000 yen (around ten US dollars).

These places are perfect for soba but other options are available including sushi and udon. Standing bars have been a tradition in Japan as early as the 1600's. Even today's Japanese izakaya bars started as stands and some still are.

If you're interested in soba, there's no need to come all the way to Japan. In the video below you'll find a simple, delicious recipe. Ingredients should be available at your local Asian market or health food store.

A zaru soba recipe

Soba: some things to remember

  • Japanese buckwheat noodles aren't always 100% buckwheat. Oftentimes, wheat flour is included to keep the noodles elastic and consistent. If you want pure buckwheat but aren't sure where to start, ask someone!
  • Tsuyu (the dipping sauce) can be high in sodium. If sodium is a concern for you then add some water to adjust the strength.
  • Soba is vegan but tsuyu is not. Dashi is an important ingredient in tsuyu and dashi is a soup stock made from tuna. In the years I've been in Japan I've never seen or heard of vegan dashi.

Tsuyu for you!

Kikkoman Somen Tsuyu Soup Base, 17 Ounce
Kikkoman Somen Tsuyu Soup Base, 17 Ounce
If you have trouble finding tsuyu, take a look here. I'm surprised to see a local, authentic tsuyu available outside of Japan. Although it says it's for somen (wheat flour noodles), it's perfect for buckwheat noodles as well. Kikkoman tsuyu is what we use at home for somen and soba.

Have you tried soba?

Have you tried soba?

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