Here's the inside scoop on one of Japan's most traditional meals, soba. Everything you need to know about how to eat soba and the different kinds available.
So what is soba?
Soba, a simple noodle made from buckwheat flour, has long been a foodstuff of choice for Japanese.
Outside of Japan, ramen has become the more popular noodle following the assertive global expansion of ramen restaurants like Ippudo. However, for Japanese, soba noodles have been a staple soul food for millennia. Discoveries of buckwheat pollen at 9,000-year-old ruins indicate that the plant has been cultivated by many generations of Japanese.
Your everyday soba is made by mixing buckwheat flour, wheat flour, and water; kneading then rolling the mixture into thin strips, and cutting finely.
Though simple on paper, soba artisans spend years or even tens of years honing their craft.
Soba noodles are also considered a healthy option. They are chock full of rutin to prevent high blood pressure, fiber to support your digestive system, and protein to develop muscle. Indeed these wonder- noodles may be one reason the majority of Japanese people stay so slim!
The two varieties of soba noodle restaurants
Without further ado, on to a soba restaurant! First, let's look at the two varieties of soba noodle restaurants. The first is a fast food style where diners tend to eat and finish up quickly-sometimes called a “standing noodle bar,” though ones with seating are also increasingly common.
Fuji Soba is one popular chain. Of course, there is no rule saying you must hurry and finish within a specific time, so stay as long as you like!
Nadai Fuji Soba
■Location: Various locations in and around Tokyo
■Operating hours: depends on the shop
■Closed: depends on the shop
Nadai Fuji Soba
The other type of restaurant tends to serve alcohol and other snacks, allowing you to enjoy a more relaxed dining experience. Common side dishes include tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), yakinori (baked seaweed), or itawasa (fish paste served with soy sauce and wasabi, eaten like sashimi).
There are many long-established restaurants of this style, such as Sunaba and Srashina. Standing noodle bars are generally more affordable, but both types serve their purpose for different clientele who either prefer to eat quickly or more leisurely.
How to enjoy the best of soba flavor
There are both warm and cold varieties of soba.
(1) Cold soba
The basic types of cold soba are zaru and mori. Both are boiled noodles submerged in cold water and served on a zaru (bamboo strainer) for dipping into the accompanying broth. However, the first mouthful is often savored without the broth in order to appreciate the specific restaurant's unique flavor of soba. Give it a try! As an aside, the more costly zaru noodles can often just be the mori variety with a seaweed topping, so we recommend going with the latter.
One thing to watch out for is mixing the whole of the wasabi into the broth at once. It can be quite a shock to your nasal passages, so just mix in a little at a time until you reach the perfect amount.
A predominant pleasure of eating cold soba is savoring the sobayu, formed by adding hot water to the remaining broth after finishing the noodles and drinking it like a soup.
The broth contains a lot of nutrients from the dipped noodles, so you should definitely give it a try. In most restaurants, just ask the waiter for sobayu and they will bring it free of charge.
(2) Warm soba
Warm soba is by itself a simple affair. The flavor is enhanced with varieties including tempura, sansai (wild vegetable), tsukimi (raw egg), and kamonanban (duck and green onion). There are many varieties to try depending on your preference and mood at the time!
Hot or cold, soba is best enjoyed by quickly slurping it up. Though such table manners are usually frowned upon abroad, in Japan this is considered the only way to eat noodles. Step into a soba restaurant to see diners young and old, male and female enjoying their noodles in this exact way. It's said by slurping, the aroma becomes much more powerful. In any case, when you visit Japan feel free to slurp away! In fact we insist on it.