One of Japan’s best-loved noodles, soba is savored around the country in a variety of styles and flavors. While usually made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat flours, juwari soba (100% buckwheat flour noodles) are often also available at many soba restaurants. This signature food of Japanese cuisine is not so well-known, but it’s easy to see how this uniquely delicious and healthy food came to have its place of honor.
Soba (buckwheat) is often thought of as a grain, but in reality it is a close relative of rhubarb, sorrel and knotweed. The seed, which can be cooked like rice or ground into flour, arrived in Japan in 722 A.D., although it didn’t take on its current form until the 16th century when flour production became possible. From there, the noodle boom began. During the Edo Period (1603-1868) neighborhood soba shops sprang up as favorite places to stop in for a chat, a bite to eat, and a sip of sake.
A good source of protein as well as an assortment of vitamins and minerals, soba was a natural addition to the Japanese diet. Residents of Edo (Tokyo’s former name), found thiamine-rich soba an effective remedy for beriberi caused by eating too much white rice. Area farmers found it made an excellent edible cover crop and the hulls could also be sold as pillow stuffing. Soba was also a staple food item in colder regions where rice did not grow. High in manganese as well as rutin, the same isoflavin found in red wine believed to fend off cardiovascular disease, soba was a conveniently delicious health food.
Soba remains an integral part of Japanese life, regularly eaten at home, at restaurants, and as a traditional holiday food. It is a favorite fast food at train stations but can also be found served as high-end fare at upscale restaurants. Dried, fresh and instant versions of the noodle are available in supermarkets along with ready-made dipping sauces. Traditionally eaten as part of the New Year celebrations as toshikoshi soba, soba symbolizes the wish for a long and healthy life. Hikkoshisoba is given as a gift to new neighbors when first moving in to a new home, where it conveys hope for a long friendship. (It’s also a clever play on words. “Soba ni” means “next to” making it a gift easily delivered with a smile.)
Soba’s countrywide popularity resulted in regional variations on serving and eating. Tokyoites eat soba with a dark rich dipping sauce, while those in Osaka and the Kansai region prefer a softer flavored sauce of lighter color. Iwate Prefecture’s famous wanko soba serves up tiny portions of noodles in small bowls with an assortment of seasonal toppings and side dishes. Residents of Aizu Wakamatsu use soba seeds as a flavorful addition to miso soup while still others cook them with rice as a nutritious and flavorful addition.
The simplest soba dishes pair the noodles with a broth for dipping. Dipping sauces can be hot or cold, simple or complex, sometimes containing only dashi and mirin (cooking sake) or more complex versions like kamonanban soba with tender pieces of duck and thinly sliced negi (long onion) in a rich broth. Steaming soup is poured over cooked noodles in hot soba dishes, and the ingredients range from kakesoba (soba served in dashi with a few shreds of nori sprinkled on the top) to sansai (wild mountain vegetable) soba. Nearly always at the end of the meal, sobayu (the hot water the soba used to boil the noodles) is brought to the table to be mixed with the remaining dipping sauce for a refreshing drink to round out the meal.
‘Freshly ground, freshly made, freshly cooked’
The process of making soba noodles looks simple but requires a practiced hand. The noodles need to be not too thick and not too thin to achieve the perfect al dente texture.
Mixing the flour
Buckwheat flour and water are mixed together in a slow and measured process considered to be the foundation of good soba. The two are blended literally by hand until the dough has a smooth consistency and can be shaped into a saucer. From there it is pressed and kneaded until it contains no air and takes on a silky texture.
Rolling the dough
Using a menbou (long thin rolling pin) the dough is continuously rolled and pressed into a long thin square. As it lengthens and thins, the soba master dexterously wraps it around the menbou as he continues the rolling process.
Cutting the noodles
Once the ideal thickness is achieved, the dough is carefully folded over on itself multiple times and cut with a sobakiri (soba knife) to the desired width.
The soba is then added to already boiling water for roughly three or four minutes. For zaru and seiro soba dishes, the noodles are quickly doused with cold water to stop the cooking process. Drained they are arranged on a zaru (bamboo strainer) or seiro (steamer platter) and served. “Iitadakimasu!” (“Let’s eat!”)