Soba noodles

Soba is a very famous food for Japanese people. In Japan, when eating soba, it’s not only acceptable to slurp to enjoy the flavour, but it’s regarded as a necessary part of enjoying the noodles. In a lot of other cultures, this is a strange manner and might even been seen as rude – but in Japan, go for it! Also, you might not be familiar with what to do with all the little dishes that come with the noodles, not to mention the sobayu (to water that soba is cooked in and presented in a teapot), so I’ll walk you through how to eat the soba and also talk about some common menu items.

so says

To be honest, I don’t really understand the difference between “good soba” and “bad soba”. Actually, I’ve never eaten soba and thought: “This soba is disgusting! I’ll never eat this shop’s soba again!”. It’s always good to me. Some gourmets say the aroma is different or the texture is different, but I think the most important part is the taste of the sauce or broth. 

Also, people say that slurping soba is good manners when eating, but I think it can get pretty messy and it’s easy to accidentally splatter some of the sauce on yourself. If you eat soba without slurping, don’t worry – no one will think you have bad manners. Of course, if you do want to slurp, that’s no problem either! Personally, even though I’m Japanese, I eat noodles without slurping because it’s the easiest way for me.  

About soba noodles

Soba dough is made from powdered buckwheat, flour, eggs, yam, etc. Then the dough is rolled out and then cut into thin pieces with a special rectangular knife. Buckwheat likes cool temperatures, and, interestingly, it prefers infertile land, so it used as a salvage crop or as a natural fertiliser. If the land is too fertile the plant grows too much and this will result in a poor crop. This makes it a great alternative for areas in Japan that struggle to grow rice.

The types of soba

Juuwari soba

Juuwari-soba

十割蕎麦/ じゅうわりそば
Juuwari means one hundred percent, so juuwari-soba means it's made of 100% buckwheat. In the early Edo period, this was the only kind of soba available. It's very difficult to bring a dough together using only buckwheat, so usually flour is added to it. This means that a 100% buckwheat soba requires an incredibly skilled chef working with high quality buckwheat. Famous soba shops that sell this type of soba are showing that they have a skilled chef in the restaurant, and you can expect quality noodles.

This soba is characterised by the aroma and the texture. It's made of only buckwheat and water so you can enjoy the purest taste. Also the texture is very firm, and it's cut thicker than other varieties because the dough is so stiff that cutting it too thinly risks tearing when it's boiled.

NIhachi soba

Nihachi-soba

二八蕎麦/ にはちそば
Nihachi means two-eight , so nihachi-soba means it's made of 80% buckwheat and 20% flour. But, depending on the shop, different quantities are used. Some might use 20g of flour and 80g of buckwheat to make 100g of soba dough, while others use 20g of flour and 100g of buckwheat to make 120g of soba dough. Nihachi-soba is the most popular type. The dough is easy to make compared to juuwari-soba, so it can be cut thinly.

In the early Edo period, juuwari-soba was the only kind provided in soba shops, but people started adding flour to the buckwheat dough from the middle of the Edo period. It quickly became popular because the texture is smoother and easy to swallow. Some people might worry that reducing the buckwheat content reduces the flavour, but, in general, the taste of buckwheat isn't so strong anyway. This soba has a nice delicate and refreshing flavour.

Kyuuwari soba

Kyuuwari-soba

九割蕎麦/ きゅうわりそば
Kyuuwari means ninety percent, so kyuuwari-soba is made of 90% buckwheat and 10% flour. It falls between juuwari-soba and nihachi-soba. Kyuuwari is a slight grade up from the normal (nihachi) soba, but there's really not much else different about it.

popular cold soba
冷たいそば

If you want to enjoy the aroma and the original soba texture, I recommend eating it cold. Even if the noodle is firm, it’s easy for it to get soggy in a warm soup.

There are two different ways that cold soba is served: either the sauce and noodles are separate or they’re in the same bowl. You can usually tell the difference by the name: if it starts with hiyashi (冷やし/ひやし), it’s served in the same bowl, and if it doesn’t, it’s served separately. This does depend on the shop though.

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Mori-soba

盛り蕎麦/ もりそば
Mori-soba is the basic, standard type. Soba and dipping sauce. Most shops provide Japanese leek and wasabi on a tiny dish with it to add flavour to the sauce.  

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Zaru-soba

ざる蕎麦/ ざるそば
Zaru-soba is just mori-soba topped with dried seaweed.

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Tororo-soba

とろろ蕎麦/ とろろそば
Tororo is grated yam - which looks like a sticky white paste. Some people might be put off by the slimy sticky look of it, but it contains high levels of soluble fiber which brings your cholesterol down, suppresses the increase in blood glucose level after meals, and activates good bacteria in the intestines. So it's great for your health. It doesn't have a strong taste so usually people enjoy it for the sticky texture.

Tororo-soba is zaru-soba with tororo. Usually tororo and the sauce are provided separately, so mix the tororo into the sauce before eating, then dip the soba into it and eat!

Nameko-soba

なめこ蕎麦/ なめこそば
Nameko are tiny, slimy brown mushrooms. They contain beta-glucan which activates good bacteria in the intestines, and also contain chondroitin and niacin, so they're good for your skin - great for a hangover too! Nameko don't have a strong mushroom flavour so even if you don't like mushrooms, you might like these.

Nameko-soba is zaru-soba with nameko. Usually the nameko are already in the broth when it's served, so just dip the soba in the sauce and eat.

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Oroshi-soba

おろし蕎麦/ おろしそば
Oroshi means grated daikon - Japanese radish. It contains high levels of vitamins C and P and potassium. It also contains diastase - digestive enzymes that help digestion and promote gastrointestinal function.

Oroshi-soba is zaru-soba and oroshi. Mix the oroshi into the sauce, then dip the soba in the soup and eat. 

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Sansai-soba

山菜蕎麦/ さんさいそば
Sansai means boiled wild vegetables.

Sansai-soba is zaru-soba with sansai. Usually the sansai are put into the sauce before serving, so just dip the soba in the soup and enjoy!

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Tenzaru

天ざる/ てんざる
Ten stands for tempura, and zaru means zaru-soba, so tenzaru is zaru-soba with tempura. It depends on the shops but you will usually be served two bowls of broth. Normally, the light colour sauce in a shallow bowl is for the tempura, and the darker sauce in a deep bowl is for the soba. If you only get served one bowl, it's for the soba, and you can probably find salt for the tempura next to the tempura or on a small plate.

Hiyashi-sansai-soba

冷やし山菜そば/ ひやしさんさいそば
Hiyashi-sansai-soba is sansai (boiled wild vegetables) served in a single bowl with the soba and sauce.

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Hiyashi-nameko-soba/ Hiyashi-nameko-oroshi-soba

冷やしなめこ蕎麦/ ひやしなめこそば
Hiyashi-nameko-soba is nameko (boiled sticky mushrooms) served in a single bowl with soba and sauce.
冷やしなめこおろし蕎麦/ ひやしなめこおろしそば
Hiyashi-nameko-oroshi-soba is nameko and oroshi (grated daikon) served in a single bowl with soba and sauce.

popular warm soba
温かいそば

I like warm soba in the winter season. For me, I feel more satisfied after warm soba than I do cold soba (probably because I love ramen). Personally I prefer eating warm soba in every season except summer when it’s just too hot outside.

Kake-soba

かけ蕎麦/ かけそば
Kake-soba is the basic, standard type. Soba and broth. Sometimes with nothing else in it, and sometimes with some Japanese spring onion.

Tsukimi-soba

月見そば/ つきみそば
Tsukimi-soba is kake-soba with (usually) a raw egg cracked into it. Tsukimi means moon watching, and it's a name that describes this soba perfectly. An egg representing the moon, and some dark seaweed to represent the dark sky.

Tanuki-soba

狸蕎麦/ たぬきそば
Tanuki-soba is kake-soba with tenkasu (crumbled bits of tempura batter).

Kitsune-soba

きつね蕎麦/ きつねそば
Kitsune-soba is kake-soba with aburaage (deep fried tofu, which usually tastes quite sweet).

The name comes from the idea that aburaage is one of the favourite foods of foxes (kitsune) in Japanese folk tales.

Nameko-soba

なめこ蕎麦/ なめこそば
Nameko-soba is kake-soba with nameko (a kind of slimy brown mushroom).

Sansai-soba

山菜蕎麦/ さんさいそば
Sansai means boiled wild vegetables.

Warm sansai-soba is kake-soba with sansai.

Yamakake-soba

山かけ蕎麦/ やまかけそば
Yamakake-soba is kake-soba with tororo (grated yam). It may be served with or without an egg.

Tempura-soba

天ぷら蕎麦/ てんぷらそば
Tempura-soba is kake-soba with tempura (usually shrimp).

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Nishin-soba

ニシン蕎麦/ にしんそば
Nishin-soba is kake-soba with nishin (herring).

Kamo-nanban

鴨南蛮/ かもなんばん Kamo-nanban is duck and Japanese spring onion served on kake-soba.

How to eat

1. Basic soba

This is the basic zaru-soba. Soba, sauce and topping. Usually the topping is spring onion and wasabi.

2. Pour the sauce

Some shops serve you the sauce in a little jug with the sauce bowl separate. If that's the case, pour the sauce into the bowl.

3. Put the topping in the sauce

I always put everything in the sauce but add according to your preference. You can always add a little at a time and taste it (especially the wasabi!).

Soba Noodles

4. Dip soba in the sauce

The saltiness of the sauce depends on the shop so if you feel the broth is too salty, you can dip the soba only half way.

Soba Noodles

5. It's OK to pick up the bowl

In some countries, picking up the bowl is bad manners, but, in Japan, it's totally OK!

6. Soba cooking water

If you order cold soba, usually a little teapot is brought in the middle of your meal. It contains soba cooking water (蕎麦湯/ そばゆ/ sobayu).

Soba Noodles

7. Pour the water in the leftover sauce

It's said that the custom of drinking the soba water started in the Edo Period. A lot of the nutrition of the soba is lost in the water when it's boiled, so people didn't want to waste it. Drink straight from the sauce bowl.

Soba Noodles

8. It's OK to drink the broth straight from the bowl

Japanese people drink the warm broth straight from the bowl, so don't hold back!

Recommendation

1 %
recommendation

I recommend warm tempura-soba. The oil from the tempura batter makes the soup mild, which I like. I also like tororo-soba (zaru-soba with grated yam) – the texture of the soba with the tororo is amazing.

1 %
recommendation

My favourite cold soba is tenzaru (soba with tempura). I prefer the crispy batter of the tempura when it’s served on the side – in warm soba it tends to get a bit soggy.

If I want warm soba, I usually go for sansai-soba. It’s warming and satisfying on a cold day.