Article updated on May 15, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau
While Asian noodles are often associated with cheap ramen, a wide variety of them can be savored in Japan. They come in three kinds: ramen (ラーメン) of course, but also soba (そば) and udon (うどん). On top of being delicious, soba noodles are also healthy, and come in many different fashions.
If you like… spaghettis,
…you will love healthy & gluten-free soba noodles!
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Healthy soba noodles [& gluten-free]
Buckwheat (soba in Japanese) was imported into Japan as a porridge by the Buddhist monks who studied in China. Its noodle form was invented in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). Soba noodles resemble spaghettis, and are made of buckwheat flour and water. Nutritionally, buckwheat has complemented other grains like white rice (that lacks thiamine) and wheat flour (that lacks the lysine amino acid). It also means that traditional soba noodles are gluten-free (buckwheat is not related at all to wheat, but wheat flour may be added to the buckwheat flour in some restaurants, so make sure to ask first if you are gluten-intolerant), fat-free, and only contain half the carbs of ramen, pastas, or udon.
Varied soba noodles [& how to eat them]
Exaggerating slightly, there are as many soba noodle recipes as households! They can come hot or cold, with or without broth, and with different toppings. So, let’s focus instead on the way soba noodles are usually prepared, as the way to eat them depends on it:
- Cold (zaru soba): as soon as the soba noodles are cooked (about a minute in boiling water), they are rinsed in ice-cold water, drained, and served often on a bamboo screen in a large bowl. They come with a cold dipping sauce (tsuyu), and wasabi and spring onions on the side. To enjoy the flavor of the buckwheat (especially if made from a newly harvested buckwheat), try the soba alone. Then, mix the spring onion and wasabi with the sauce. Take a few strands of soba noodles with your chopsticks, and dip about a third of them into the sauce before eating them (otherwise the dip will be overpowering). Different toppings are proposed: vegetables, shrimps, a soft boiled egg, meat, fried tofu, or tempura… Delicious!
Note that once you are done, the cooking water may be brought to your table: the sobayu (yu means water in Japanese). It is supposed to be healthy: full of fibers, vitamin B1, B2, proteins, and rutin. Mix the whitish water with what is left of the tsuyu, and drink it.
- Hot (kake soba): cooked and cooled down in the same way, a hot broth is added to the soba noodles before serving. This is more like a noodle soup that requires less know-how to be savored. Once you have eaten the noodles and toppings, feel free to drink the broth straight from the bowl.
A typical experience
The remote Iya valley in Shikoku is renowned for its homemade soba noodles. Initially, because the soil is poor, buckwheat was one of the only cereals that could grow on the southern island. On the winding mountain road, just another bend like many others. Only a small red-roofed house with a yellow curtain hanging over the door contrasts with the greenery of the remote island. It marks one of the most traditional soba restaurants of Japan. The secret of the soba noodles of the Iya Valley is that they are homemade from buckwheat flour using spring water from the mountain stream running behind the shop. Inside, seated on a tatami mat, we observe the elderly couple preparing the soba: kneading the dough into a ball, rolling it out until it is paper-thin, folding it into layers, before cutting it into thin strands. The soba noodles are cooked briefly in boiling water before being cooled down and rinsed in ice-cold water. A few minutes later, the cook walks towards us with two steaming bowls: the broth was added with some vegetables and topped with ginger… Mouth-watering!
When eating noodles, Japanese slurp. It may sound rude, but it is not: it is common practice, and can even compliment the chef. What is rude is to cut the noodles with your teeth and put them back into the dish or dip. Knowing this makes slurping almost mandatory. On top of this, when slurping, air is mixed in one’s mouth with the food enhancing the flavors (like when tasting wine). So, don’t be shy, and please, slurp away!
Where to have soba noodles in Japan: As described in this article, the Iya Valley on Shikoku Island is completely off the beaten path, and a great spot for soba noodles. Elsewhere, follow the slurping sounds!
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