Soba is a unique noodle dish that’s enjoyed throughout the year. This well-known Japanese favorite is actually very simple. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat, which is a type of grain, and are eaten with soup or dipping sauce. Mori soba means cold soba noodles served on a bamboo tray (zaru soba is the same as mori soba except that nori seaweed is sprinkled atop the soba), while kake soba is served in a bowl with hot soup. Simply put, soba dishes can be divided into two types: cold soba and hot soba.
However, behind this seemingly simple dish is a long history, and soba is prepared in many different ways throughout the country. How finely or coarsely the buckwheat flour is milled or at what ratio the buckwheat flour and wheat flour are mixed changes the taste of the soba. Whether the soba noodles are fresh or dried also makes a big difference. Soba is indeed a simple but multifaceted dish that gives us something new each time we eat it.
History and IngredientsIt is said that the soba grain, or buckwheat, was brought to Japan before the Nara period (710-794). The history of soba has a simple origin: farmers began growing and harvesting soba grain as an emergency food in case of famine, etc. Soba was just one of the cereals eaten by farmers. This theory is supported by the lack of evidence showing that soba was eaten by the nobility of the Heian period (794- 1185). Then, as millstones became popular, soba gaki was born. It’s like a dumpling that’s made by mixing hot water into milled buckwheat flour to cook the flour. It’s believed that farmers and commoners ate soba gaki during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
On the other hand, soba in noodle form as we know it today was called soba kiri. It was given that name because buckwheat flour is kneaded, stretched, and then cut with a knife. (“Cut” is kiru or kiri in Japanese.)
It is believed that soba kiri was born in the sixteenth to seventeenth century and became popular in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868), which means that soba gaki was “the” soba dish in Japan for many years from the Kamakura period to the mid-Edo. Records show that Japan already had udon and somen at least 300 years earlier, during the Nanbokucho period (1336-1392). Since the methods used to make udon and somen are believed to have come from China, soba’s history is completely different from that of udon or somen. Possible locations where soba originated include Motoyama-juku along the Nakasendo Way (current Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture) and the Tenmoku-zan Seiunji temple in Kai (current Koshu City, Yamanashi Prefecture), but no theory has credible evidence. While udon and somen spread primarily in the Kansai region in the west, soba is believed to have been born in the central Koshin-etsu region, after which it became popular in and around Edo in the east and spread to the rest of the country as a daily food. Even today, we often associate udon and somen with western Japan and soba with eastern Japan.
Soba is basically made of buckwheat flour, water, and often tsunagi, or binder. For tsunagi, wheat flour is generally used. The ratio of wheat flour and buckwheat flour determines what to call the soba, such as juwari soba free from tsunagi or any other flavoring ingredients, and nihachi soba made from 8 parts buckwheat flour and 2 parts wheat flour. Often, grated yam is mixed into flour to make tsunagi because the addition of yam prevents the soba noodles from breaking. Yam is also thought to add richness to the taste of soba. According to recent studies on the slimy substance in root vegetables, yam is also shown to cleanse the blood and promote libido. Other unique ingredients of tsunagi includefimori, or glue plant, and konnyaku, or yam cake, which are used in some regions.
The manner in which the buckwheat flour is milled also influences the type and quality of soba. Therefore, soba restaurants use different milling methods to change the flavor and color of soba. Compared to other varieties, sarashina soba has a very whitish color. Virgin buckwheat flour from soba seeds is white and has an elegant aroma. To make sarashina soba, in many cases the buckwheat husks are removed before milling, and the resulting soba is very popular for its aroma and premium taste. The name “sarashina soba” actually came from a soba restaurant in Azabu during the Edo period. It’s a coined term combining sara from “Sarashina,” which is the name of a soba producing region in Shinshu, and shina from “Hoshina,” which is the name of the family that financed the soba restaurant. (The Kanji character for shina in the region “Sarashina” is different from the one for shina in “Hoshina.”)
“Yabu Soba” and “Sunaba Soba” enjoyed fame equal to that of Sarashina Soba. These three soba restaurants were known as the three greatest soba restaurants in Edo. Yabu Soba was famous for its salty dipping sauce. It’s believed that the restaurant invented its famed menu for the busy, often impatient, craftspeople of Edo, who could down the piping hot noodles in minutes by dipping them in the sauce. Even today, soba restaurants in Tokyo that follow Yabu Soba serve strong dipping sauces that are almost too salty to eat with soba. However, the salty dipping sauce offered by Yabu Soba defined the correct way to eat soba, which we now widely follow: “Dip the noodles halfway, never soak the entire noodles in the sauce.” “Sobasei,” a famous episode of “rakugo,” or Japanese comic monologue, by Basho Kingentei X, has an introduction in which a native of Edo takes his last breath, uttering these words: “I wish I could have a chance to eat soba with plenty of dipping sauce before I die…” His dying wish alludes to the strong dipping sauce of Yabu Soba. Sunaba Soba, which originated in Osaka, transplanted itself successfully in Edo and opened many branch restaurants there. Actually, Sunaba Soba is the oldest of the three soba restaurants. It’s also believed that ten mori was created by one of the “Sunaba” franchise restaurants. (Ten mori is cold soba with hot dipping sauce and tempura, or deep-fried vegetables and seafood, in the sauce.)
Seiro, Mori, and Zaru
Seiro soba is another type. In the early days of Edo, soba restaurants began steaming juwari soba in bamboo baskets and serving the cooked noodles directly in the baskets, because these noodles made from 100% buckwheat flour broke easily when cooked in boiling water. Seiro in seiro soba literally means “basket steamer,” but it’s a square-shaped basket like the one we associate with zaru soba or mori soba today instead of the circular type we normally see in Chinese restaurants. In those days, mori soba was served on a normal plate, while zaru soba was presented on a bamboo tray. It’s believed that restaurants began serving soba in bamboo basket steamers because plates and bamboo trays were difficult to carry in stacks with soba on them. This led to a custom that started during the Meiji period (1868-1912) of serving cold soba dishes–the kind you eat with dipping sauce–on bamboo basket steamers. However, the preparation method of steaming soba on bamboo basket steamers, which was common in the early Edo period, gradually fell out of popularity and is practiced by only a small number of restaurants today. So, how is seiro soba as we order it today different from mori or zaru soba? Actually, how these terms are used is up to each soba restaurant, where a general rule is that a more expensive, specialty version of mori or zaru is called seiro for the purpose of differentiation.
As you’ll recall from the beginning of this article, the difference between mori and zaru soba is whether or not nori is sprinkled on top of the soba. Interestingly, though, the origin of these soba dishes has nothing to do with nori. In fact, restaurants didn’t start serving zaru soba with nori until the Meiji period. A new type of soba dish called bukkake emerged and became popular during the Genroku period (1688-1704) when soba culture became a widespread phenomenon in Edo. Soba noodles with soup poured over them (bukkake-ru means “to pour”), bukkake led to the birth of kake soba as we know it today. Until the birth of bukkake, the standard way to serve soba noodles was to cook them in boiling water, rinse the cooked soba under cold water, and place the cold noodles in a mound (“mom,” hence the name “mori soba”) on a plate. To differentiate it from the new hit product bukkake, people began calling it mori soba.
Zaru soba, however, originated from a soba restaurant called “Iseya” in what is now the Fukagawa district of Koto-ku in Tokyo, which served soba noodles on bamboo trays. This novel way of presenting soba on bamboo trays made Iseya the place to go for their “high-end” soba. Because it was served in a bamboo basket, or take zaru, people called it zaru soba. Since then, zaru soba was given a higher status than mori soba. To differentiate it further, restaurants began serving zaru soba with zaru jiru, which is dipping sauce made from regular soba soup with mirin added to it. The rich, sweet taste of zaru jiru made with mirin, which was expensive at the time helped establish the status of zaru soba as a premier dish. Moreover, in the Meiji period zaru soba was served with nori sprinkled on top, adding a further visual differentiation from mori soba. Regrettably, the number of soba restaurants serving this dipping sauce (especially for zaru soba) decreased over time, and today hardly any soba restaurants have zaru jiru. Now that we have no zaru jiru, and zaru soba is served on bamboo basket steamers, nori is the only difference between mori soba and zaru soba.
Soba Toppings and Menu
We enjoy various types of soba today. Soba noodles themselves are tasty, but who can resist the visual and palatal delight of eating soba with different toppings on various occasions? Popular toppings are tempura and kakiage, or deep-fried mixed vegetables and other ingredients. Apparently, the custom of eating soba with these toppings began during the mid-Edo period, when people enjoyed eating scallop kakiage with soba noodles. The most expensive ingredient of tempura is prawn, and thus ebiten, or deep-fried prawn, is considered the king of soba toppings. In some areas of Japan, soba is served with tempura of chikuwa, or tube-shaped fish cake, (Kanto) or satsuma-age, deep-fried minced fish and vegetable balls, (Kyushu). So, when you visit different places and order tempura soba, you may be surprised to see different kinds of tempura served with the noodles.
Other popular toppings include sansai, or Japanese wild vegetables, and grated daikon radish. In particular, many soba restaurants now use locally grown sansai. In the Tohoku region, especially in Yamagata Prefecture, we can enjoy a variety of soba dishes using nameko mushrooms. There’s yam too, of course. Tororo soba, topped with grated yam, is a popular soba dish that is sometimes served with egg white. Some restaurants put a quail or chicken egg yolk on top.
People who want to eat meat with soba should try nanban soba and curry soba. Nanban soba is believed to have originated at a soba restaurant called “Sasaya” in Bakuro-cho, Nihombashi, during the early Edo period. Nanban soba, or soba noodles in a hot soup made from duck meat and green onion, had a particularly large following among the bukkake soba dishes that were popular at the time. How we came to name it nanban isn’t certain, and some say this soba dish was so named because foreigners from the West (nanban-jin) who came to Japan during the Edo period loved green onion, while others say any new dish people had never seen before was called nanban just like all other things that were introduced to the country from the West. Whatever the case may be, today nanban soba is a standard menu item in many soba restaurants and is very popular for its savory soup of duck meat and green onion. Ducks grow plump in winter, so the duck meat available in winter is tastier. Accordingly, nanban soba is also known as a seasonal dish that’s often eaten on cold days.
Talking about seasonal dishes, who can forget nishin soba? This simple dish consists of a hot soba noodle soup topped with candied herring. Many of you associate nishin soba with Kyoto. Because Kyoto is far from the ocean, in the old days it was difficult for the people of Kyoto to get fresh seafood. As a result, they used their ingenuity to create various dishes using dried bar cod and dried herring imported from Hokkaido. During the Meiji period, a soba restaurant called Matsuba” in the Minamiza area of Kyoto, near Shijo Ohashi Bridge, reportedly served candied dried herring with soba, and the dish became a hit and spread throughout the city. This anecdote also ties the history of nishin soba to Kyoto, but actually old nishin soba recipes are also found in Hokkaido, the home of herring fishing. Especially in Esashi-cho and Rumoi City, where nishin fishermen flourished, nishin soba is popular as a local delicacy.
One thing we love about eating soba is sobayu. When soba noodles are boiled in water, an opaque, gruel-like liquid remains, and this is called sobayu. Generally at soba restaurants, sobayu is served in a cylindrical wooden container at the end of the meal. We pour sobayu into the remaining dipping source and enjoy the delicious mixture. Sobayu, which isn’t available with udon, somen, or other noodles, is a unique custom that makes eating soba more fun.
Actually, this custom of drinking sobayu at the end of the meal was born not in Edo, but in the Suwa region of Shinshu. In Edo, it was customary to drink miso soup with tofu instead of sobayu. Apparently, people there believed miso soup would prevent food poisoning. Because sobayu also had the same effects, such as promoting digestion, preventing indigestion, and maintaining gastrointestinal health, the habit of drinking sobayu was brought to Edo and quickly spread there. Recent studies have shown that sobayu contains a lot of health-promoting substances such as vitamin B1, B2 and a unique nutrient found in soba called rutin. These nutrients are dissolved into water as the soba cooks. Long before such studies were conducted, Japanese people knew that sobayu was good for the body. Our ancestors were wise.
As you already know, soba has a long history, and there are various types of soba and soba dishes that reflect local flavors. There are endless ways to enjoy soba, because the way it tastes, smells, and feels in your mouth will vary depending on how the buckwheat flour is milled, how much water and tsunagi are added, how the soup or dipping sauce is prepared, which toppings are used, and how the noodles are cut. Originating in rural areas of the central region of Japan in the mid-Edo period, soba kiri, or soba as we know it today, was introduced to Edo and quickly spread throughout the country. It’s undoubtedly a noodle dish born in Japan. Today, we still love soba and all its local accompaniments. Here in the United States, many brands of truly delicious dry soba noodles imported from Japan have become available in recent years. American consumers can also find hand-made or machine-made fresh soba noodles in supermarkets, and growing numbers of soba restaurants use fresh noodles. Soba has not yet experienced a boom here, as ramen has, but let’s hope many more Americans will learn to appreciate this wonderful dish soon. I can’t wait to talk with soba-loving Americans about the best way to eat soba, like how far we should dip the noodles into the sauce before eating.
How to cook Soba
Kamo Tsuke Soba Recipe
Ingredients (Serves 1)
- 3 slices duck meat
- 2-3/4 oz. uncooked soba
- 1 bunch green onion
- 2/3 cup Nijiya soba noodle soup
- Boil water in a pot and cook the soba as instructed. Rinse the noodles thoroughly under running water, drain, and transfer onto a plate.
- Slice the green onion to the desired size. Pour soba noodle soup into a pot, put the pot over heat, and when the soup starts to boil, add the duck meat. Add the green onion and continue to cook while skimming the fat.
- When the duck meat is cooked, transfer the soup into a bowl and dip the soba noodles in it. Enjoy!
Soba Inari Recipe
Ingredients (Serves 10 inari balls)
- 5 pieces fried bean curd
- 2 Tbsp. cooking sake (Japanese rice wine)
- 2 Tbsp. mirin (Japanese sweet cooking rice wine)
- 1 Tbsp. beet sugar
- 1 Tbsp. sugar syrup
- Pinch of salt
- 2 Tbsp. noodle soup
- 2 tsp. shoyu (soy sauce)
- Uncooked soba(enough for 2 people)
- 3 Tbsp. sushi vinegar
- Shallot and red pickled ginger, to taste
- Place the fried bean curd into boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes to remove the oil. Rinse and drain well. Cut each piece into halves and open each half like a pouch.
- Place 100 ml (3.4 oz) water, sake, mirin, beet sugar, sugar syrup, and salt in a pot, and cook the pouches for about 10 minutes. Add the noodle soup and soy sauce (adjust to taste), bring the mixture to a boil, and then remove from heat.
- Cook the soba as instructed, rinse the noodles under running water, and drain well.
- Put the sushi vinegar, chopped shallot, and red pickled ginger in a bowl, add soba, and mix well.
- Pick up a small portion of the noodles with a twist of a fork, and place a portion of noodles into each pouch.