Soba - Delicious Simplicity
By Marri Lynn
The quintessential soba experience can still be pursued in the mountains today, where some intrepid entrepreneurs have set up small sobaya in the spirit of the Buddhist pilgrim waypoints to devote their days to their cuisine. Some retreats seek to share the experience, and invite guests to try their hand at making noodles with fresh-ground flour. After carefully mixing, rolling, and cutting the dough, you can savour the fruit of your labour and enjoy your own noodles freshly prepared and served to you.
The best season to seek out a sobaya, whether in the heart of Tokyo or in the mountains to the north, is when the leaves turn and autumn arrives. Autumn is buckwheat's prime season, and aki-soba made from flour harvested at this peak season is considered of a superior flavor and nutritional quality. Soba made from flour harvested in the off-season of summer, called natsu-soba, isn't as avidly sought-after by true soba pundits.
Whether aki-soba or natsu-soba, there are many ways to enjoy the buckwheat noodle. Mori soba presents the buckwheat noodle in its simplest form, served cold with tsuyu dipping sauce, wasabi, and Welsh onion often on a bamboo surface in a lacquer box. The earthy noodle readily absorbs the saltiness of the dipping sauce, making for a cool and flavorful summer snack. Zaru soba is almost identical to mori soba in its refreshing simplicity, with the addition of shredded nori on top of the noodles. Ten zaru is a serving of warm soba noodles with assorted tempura on the side, steaming and crisp, a more filling companion to the noodles and a delicious match of warm vegetables with the almost nutty flavor of the soba. The word zaru, often seen in the names of many soba dishes, is the name of the woven bamboo sieve traditionally used for straining and presenting the soba, and indicates the noodles aren't served in a broth.
Outside of the zaru category, there are more filling variations of soba dishes served hot or cold, with added ingredients. Kamo seiro is a dish of cold soba served beside a bowl of warm broth in which duck slices float, while kakiage soba (photo) has the noodles immersed in warm broth along with pieces of tempura floating on a bevy of noodles. Other ingredients such as iwanori seaweed, prawn tempura, grilled herring, fried slices of tofu, and even raw egg can be found atop the versatile noodle. A potentially misleading dish for the neophyte connoisseur is yakisoba, which is made from Chinese noodles not unlike chow mein, rather than actual soba.
Western and Eastern Japan often hold differing opinions on matters of taste, and this holds true on the issue of most beloved noodle. Osakans prefer the thick, white udon noodle, while the western Kansai region of Japan prefers the slimmer and healthier buckwheat noodle. Nevertheless, soba noodles can be found in posh restaurants throughout Japan, and even the busiest soba-lovers can find their fix en route to work or school in the form of a tachiguchi, inevitably next to a train station to attract commuters. These little shops offer speed over comfort, without chairs to sit on while eating. It's expected that the customers take their noodles to go.
Soba typifies the ideal of Japanese cuisine with its versatility, healthiness, and the harmony of simplicity and complexity which goes into making it. Hot or cold, quick or to be savoured, freshly made or from a package, the soba noodle will undoubtedly remain a favourite of Japan's for generations.