'Soba' is a Japanese word for buckwheat and soba noodles are made from soba flour.
Soba noodles are one of the most popular dishes in Japanese food culture and it originated as a kind of fast food like sushi during the Edo (pre-modern Tokyo) period. It is highly nutritious with low calories, and it is considered healthy vegetarian food.
A dark brown colour of noodles implies high buckwheat content (the soba noodles pictured above are made of 100% buckwheat).
If not 100% buckwheat, the noodles are mixed with other ingredients such as wheat flour. Green tea and matcha soba (pictured above), 'ume (plum) soba, 'sakura' (cherry blossom) soba are beautiful with green and pink natural colours, and are gaining in popularity even outside Japan.
Soba Noodle Dishes
Cold soba noodles are perfect in the hot and humid Japanese summer. It is often served as 'zaru soba' at noodle restaurants. 'Zaru soba' are presented on a bamboo mesh called a 'zaru' and the cold noodles help to chill the body.
Combining 'nori' (dry, flavoured seaweed), thinly cut 'naganegi' (longer and thicker than Welsh onion or Japanese leek), and wasabi as toppings, you simply dip the noodles in a soy-based sauce. It is a very quick and easy meal at home, too.
You put the soba noodles in boiled water just like pasta without adding salt, drain and wash them with running cold water to remove excess starch as well as increase the flavour of buckwheat.
Soba noodles in hot broth are good for the cold winter. Unlike cold soba noodles in which you enjoy the simplicity of soba, hot soba noodles offer a variety of flavours depending on the ingredients you put on top of the boodles. 'Yuoba soba' in above picture is a good example, adding flavoured 'yuba' (bean curd skins), shiitake mushroom, beans, kamaboko (fish cake), as toppings giving the dish different textures as well as colours.
Other Soba Products
Japanese soba noodles are so popular, and soba lovers even travel far to the countryside in search for hidden soba. The term, soba, has become almost synonymous with other types of noodles such as 'yakisoba' (stir-fried noodles) and 'chuka' soba (literally 'Chinese soba' but better known in English as ramen).
Soba can be used for many different products as well.
Roasted soba is turned to deliciously flavoured tea.
Soba 'shochu' is a popular Japanese liquor distilled from buckwheat.
Pillows made from soba hulls (the outside shell of the grain) were common the past and can still be found today.
Soba Noodles Dining - Past and Present
Soba noodles have traditionally been Japanese fast food throughout its history. When you stroll near train stations, you may encounter many 'tachigui' (standing-only eateries) soba noodle restaurants or bars. They are inexpensive, quick and healthy - the ideal fast food.
Japanese office workers lined up in front of a 'tachigui' (standing-only eatery) soba bar at lunch time in Tokyo. Because the customers are served so quickly, you won't wait too long.
Plastic fast display in front of a Japanese soba noodle restaurant. Japanese plastic food craftsmen are world-renowned for their ability to replicate the delicious appearance of dishes.
Peeping through the door at 'tachigui'soba bar. No women are found, and it is crowded with many male Japanese office workers in dark suits gobbling up soba noodles without sitting and putting down their bags. Truly fast food!
However, soba noodles can also be exclusive and speciality restaurants are ranked as top-end Japanese cuisine. In those restaurants, soba chefs make their own unique soba boodles, often from organic buckwheat flour using high quality water.
At the other end of the spectrum are instant soba noodles. The 'Midori no Tanuki' in above picture is the most popular instant soba noodles products in Japan. You simply pour boiled water into the bowl and wait for three minutes.
Soba Noodles in Japanese Culture
Soba noodles look like spaghetti but you never eat them with forks. Always use chopsticks or we will send report you to the soba police (just kidding:-)). Most importantly, you are supposed to slurp with loud noise conveying the deliciousness of the dish. Mind you some people may have soba allergy.
Soba noodles are not just for eating but a tool for greeting. When you move to a new home, it was common to give a pack of dried soba noodles, called 'hicckoshi soba' (moving-in soba), to your neighbours in the eastern part of Japan.
The most important part of Japanese soba culture is the 'toshikoshi soba'. 'Toshikoshi' literally means year-crossing, and Japanese people eat soba noodles on the New Year's Eve as the last meal of the year. Because soba dough is spread long and thing to make soba boodles, it refers longevity and prosperity. Buckwheat is also a tough plant that survives in harsh weather, so eating soba ensures good health and fortune. It is also said soba noodles are soft and easily to chew, meaning that it cuts off bad memories and troubles in the old year to welcome a bright year ahead. 'Soba' is also a homonym for 'near' in the Japanese language, so eating soba with family on New Year's Eve implies the strong ties with family members.
Lastly, eating soba could be entertaining.
'Wanko soba' is an eating style where the soba noodles are served full mouthful quantity in small bowls. These days, wanko soba is eaten as a one-person competition throughout Japan; you try to see how many bowls of soba noodles can be eaten in a given time. Wanko soba originally came from Iwate prefecture, northern part of Japan, and the All-Japan Wanko Soba Eating Championship is held in the region every year.
Watch how fast the competitors eat!
It is quick to eat, easy to digest, good for body, and fun to eat the soba noodles. The soba noodles are not just food but it provides an important meaning for Japanese culture.
The Culture of soba noodles goes around.
*Special thanks to Ms. Hiromi Adachi, the chief, and Hanamaki Tourism and Convention Bureau for the contribution of photos and a video.