You know it is summer when you hear the loud cacophony of cicadas and slurp your soba, at least you do if you live in Japan. We in the U.S. know the sounds of cicadas well, but many are missing out if you have never eaten soba noodles. I hope you will give it a try. It is actually extremely easy to make once you gather the ingredients.
While I lived in Japan, soba which are essentially just buckwheat noodles with a delicious sauce and a few toppings, were one of my absolute favorite dishes. They are delicious year round but especially popular in the summer heat since they are eaten cold.
Most Americans have very little knowledge of Japanese food beyond sushi, tempura, and teriyaki sauce. Unfortunately most “Japanese” restaurants in the U.S. do not taste like any food I ever ate in my many years of living in Japan. I don’t even recognize most of the items in Japanese restaurants here as remotely Japanese at all. Part of the reason for that poor quality is the lack of ingredients, especially fresh things like hard to find herbs or vegetables. But it is also because nearly every Japanese restaurant in the U.S. outside major cities seem to be owned by Chinese or Korean immigrants who tried to cash in on the Japanese food craze even though they have no knowledge of it at all. Japanese cuisine is as far removed from Korean and Chinese cuisine as you can possibly get. It is no more similar than German food is to Mexican.
Now it is possible that some Korean or Chinese chefs studied in Japan or from a Japanese chef in the U.S., but they are few and far between in my experience. So I am rarely satisfied with any Japanese restaurant I have been to since moving back from Japan. You can nearly always expect far lower quality, food that is not even Japanese, really doesn’t taste good, wrong ingredients and improperly prepared, and it is usually outrageously overpriced. Japanese people would be horrified to know what tries to pass for Japanese food in the U.S. In fact I know this from personal experience from my Japanese friends that have visited here and tried our local restaurants and were shocked. Imagine trying to get authentic southern food in India and you will understand my point. They thought it was Chinese and completely unrecognizable to them. Instead of paying though the nose for God awful imitation food why not try it yourself at home and it will likely be much more delicious and certainly cheaper.
In my quest to recapture the flavors of my favorite Japanese dishes I had no choice but to cook them myself after being disgusted by every fake Japanese restaurant in town. This will be part of an ongoing series. I will concentrate on just on a few of my personal favorite dishes and try to introduce a new recipe every week. There are thousands upon thousands of Japanese dishes so I won’t run out of material anytime soon. There are a lot of really good recipes out there but they always forget people in rural America often will not have access to many of these ingredients. I tried to break them all down and give some recommendations on brands and how to acquire the ingredients and included links on Amazon for hard to buy items. This article attempts to fill in some gaps from the video recipe. This is something many of these recipes online completely forget. Not all of us live in Los Angeles with a huge Japanese grocery store around the corner. It might take a while to gather the ingredients especially if you have to order some online but it is well worth the wait.
If you try this recipe and don’t like it, do yourself a favor and give it at least one or two more tries. I didn’t care for it at first because of very unique flavors but now I love it to the point I am a soba addict. Also, it is very nutritious and healthy with the added bonus of being very low in calories. 1 cup of cooked noodles has only 113 calories. More with sauce and seasoning but not much more. It is a great diet food that will fill you up without filling you out. They are also Gluten free if that matters to you. (For people with gluten allergies I do not need to tell you to be sure and check the label. Some brands are 100% gluten free and others use wheat) They are high in vitamins A, B, minerals and fiber. There are many ways to east soba both hot and cold. This is just one of dozens.
This recipe is for what is known as Zaru Soba
This can be the trickiest part. If you have an Asian grocer that stocks a large Japanese section you may be fine. But some of the ingredients you might need to buy off of Amazon or other sites.
1) Soba Noodles These are my personal favorites simply because they are easy to find. They sell these locally at my Kroger but they are very expensive. Around $4 per pack so I buy in bulk from Amazon. They come in various colors also. The green ones have green tea, orange has yam, but standard ones are brownish in color. Fresh or even frozen soba noodles tastes better but dried is better than none at all.
2) Tsuyu This is the dipping sauce. You can buy this in a bottle pre-made but that gets pricey very quickly and isn’t as good as making it. I will give a recipe below to make your own which is not only far more delicious but much, much cheaper. But for people who just want to try soba for the very first time this might be a good idea to just buy the sauce pre-made.
3) Green onions or fresh chives if you don’t have green onions chopped up. As many as you like and they are also optional if you don’t like them.I love them so use them liberally.
4) Wasabi sauce. You should be able to buy this in pretty much any grocery store now. The brand called S&B is authentic Japanese. Be careful not to buy Wasabi not made in Japan because it has an odd taste. Stick to Japanese wasabi only.
5) Shredded Nori This is simply the green dried seaweed that is used on sushi. You can probably not find it already shredded but it is perfectly fine to buy some sheets for sushi and shred it yourself. The sheets are sold at any supermarket. Just cut them into very small shreds.
6) (Optional ingredient) This is purely my personal preference. I love roasted sesame seeds. So I usually will sprinkle some on my soba. Available at any grocery store. I bought a large plastic jar for less than $2 at my local Kroger.
7) (Optional ingredient) Salmon Furikake This is usually used on rice as a flavoring. Furikake is basically a combination of several ingredients that might include shredded seaweed, some dried fish flakes, wasabi, some sugar, salt, and many other combinations. You could use this instead of shredded Nori alone or in addition to the nori.
8) (optional) I also love Shiso leaves. It is part of the mint family. You will likely not be able to find this anywhere, but order some seeds and grow your own plants and you can eat them year round. They are delicious with food or even tea. You can buy it dried but fresh is the way to go. Chop up a shiso leaf on your soba for that really authentic kick.
9) (optional) Grated Daikon radish, This is a large white Japanese radish you can sometimes find in the supermarket. I am not a big daikon fan but didn’t want to leave that part out for people that might enjoy that taste.
If you do not plan on making your own Tsuyu sauce you are done collecting ingredients. Gather all those items and watch this video. If you want to make your own Tsuyu sauce (highly recommended) then skip down a bit for the Tsyuyu ingredient list and recipe. After your Tsuyu is made come back here and watch this video.
Important Note: This recipe is to make a concentrated solution. You can keep it stored in an airtight container in the fridge for a few weeks. To actually eat it with soba I suggest you dilute it with about 2 or 3 parts cold water to 1 part of this concentrated solution. Otherwise the flavor will be far too strong. This will make enough tsuyu for many servings.
1 cup Soy Sauce
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp Mirin (You should be able to find in your grocery store)
3/4 cup sake (Any sake is fine, most grocery stores and any liquor store should have some cheap sake)
1 cup bonito flakes
1 2×2 inch cut of Kombu
In a medium saucepan add only the sake at first and bring to a boil. Then add in the mirin and soy sauce and stir well. Then add kombu and Katsubushi (bonito flakes). Bring it to a boil and stir well then reduce to low heat and cook for about 5 minutes stirring occasionally and extra few minutes is also fine. Turn off heat and let cool. You will need a fine sieve or strainer. Pour the mixture through the sieve and this is Tsuyu sauce. Make sure no solid material is in the sauce so strain well.
Don’t throw away the kombu or bonito. Set them aside and you can use it to make delicious furikake to go over rice.
Suggestions for eating soba: This is just the way I prefer to eat soba. I mix the wasabi and chopped green onions in with the tsuyu. I sprinkle my soba noodles with sesame and furikake. Then you take your chop sticks and pick up a portion and dip it into the sauce and do your best to soak it thoroughly and get some green onions on your portion of noodles. Hold the bowl close to your mouth and you slurp it in so as not to spill it everywhere. Not very elegant but very practical and fun. Soba and slurping go hand in hand. Simply follow the instructions for cooking the soba on the package. No other instructions are really needed once the Tsuyu is made. Simply gather ingredients and boil noodles.
If you tried the recipe let me know what you thought of it in the comments. Also if you have any questions also leave them in comments and I will do my best to answer. Soba is best served cold so make sure both the noodles and tsuyu sauce are both chilled. ITADAKIMASU (ee-tah-dah-key-mas) It means simply “let’s eat” Say that before you eat your soba. And after you are finished you say GOCHISOOSAMA (go-chee-so-sama) or that was delicious. And I certainly hope you think it is as delicious as I do and become a soba addict. Bon appétit!
Update: A few people wrote me asking about other sauces besides the tsuyu. Yes, there are many. Here is just one you can try with soba noodles instead of the Tsuyu. This is a Thai/Japanese fusion type sauce that you can adjust to your tastes.
BASICS: a tablespoon for each except otherwise noted for a single bowl of noodles.
Peanut butter (or almond butter) 100% real peanut butter. If you really love peanut or almond butter it is fine to add extra.
Sesame oil (get the darker and more slightly expensive brand. the cheap ones aren’t 100% sesame and won’t have the aroma or flavor)
Soy sauce (2 tablespoons)
sea salt (1/2 teaspoon) but regular salt or no salt at all is fine
Vinegar (any kind, white, dark, apple, not important)
If you like spicy food, then some siracha, pepper sauce, or possibly chopped chills or even tobacco sauce would do the trick. You probably have a favorite hot sauce.
You can even add a teaspoon or 2 of sake or mirin or both to add a little sweetness to the sauce but this is optional. Caro syrup, brown sugar, or even honey works also if you don’t have mirin. Personally I like tasting something that has elements of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy but you know your tastes better than anyone.
The ingredients can be heated in a pan for a few minutes over the stoke and then let cool or you can simply mix them together very well and serve without heating. I think a little heat helps mix the flavors together better so I usually will cook it for a few minutes then chill the sauce.
Additional Possibilities. It is really best to just use your imagination and personal preferences. Almost anything goes well with this sauce. Pick out some of your favorite vegetables. Use your judgement if cooked or raw is better for each ingredient you choose.
minced fresh garlic (optional) chopped or green onion (optional) Yellow Squash or Zucchini wedge slices (optional) chopped cilantro (optional) thinly sliced carrot (optional) thinly sliced cucumber (optional) boiled and cooled bean sprouts (optional) Mushrooms, shiitake are best (optional)Steamed or boiled Asparagus (optional) Snow Peas (optional)
If you like meat with your meals, then fish, pork, chicken, or even beef cooked the way you like then chopped up to bite size chunks works well. My personal favorite is a nice portion of pork tenderloin. Just be careful not to season any meat too heavily since you already have a sauce.
Simply mix all the liquid ingredients with the peanut butter well. You can also adjust to lessen or add more of what you prefer. Then throw in the vegetables and meat and toss with your soba noodles. This is sort of a Thai/Japanese fusion sauce. Don’t be afraid to change up the ingredients either to suit your taste. Use this as a guide to make a sauce suited for your palette.