We Support Soba: Everything You Need To Know About Japan’s Most Underrated Noodle

Each day this week during Around The World In 5 Editors, one of the editors breaks in with a lineup of stories, recipes, interviews and personal essays dedicated to their respective country. Here is why today is dedicated to the food of Japan.

Mention “Japanese noodles” to the average person and chances are they’ll assume you’re talking about ramen. And we’re not hating on that. Ramen is great – it’s accessible, cheap and tasty. There are even maps that point you to the nearest ramen joint. But, as soba master Shuichi Kotani of NYC’s Daruma-ya (and CEO of noodle consultants and educators Worldwide-Soba, Inc.) points out, “I don’t know why ramen gets so much press… it’s high in calories because of all the oil and it’s high in salt.” So, which worthy noodle does Kotani believe is taking a back seat? Soba! Buckwheat noodles are “healthy, light and refreshing,” according to the expert. They’re also available at a variety of dining establishments, from casual to extravagant.

About any major U.S. city doesn’t just have Japanese restaurants serving soba, but shops that actually specialize in its production. With both hot and cold preparations, soba is a rare year-round comfort food. Since stumbling upon it a couple of years ago, I’ve visited neighborhood joint Soba-ya in NYC around 75+ times (during all four seasons, all hours of the day). By adding variety of toppings – from tempura to ikura to uni – the soft, wheaty noodles always take on new flavors. So, how to make it? Eat it? And just why hasn’t it exploded onto the American culinary scene like its wormlike cousin? We caught up with Kotani and fellow NYC chef Toshio Tomita of slurp shop Cagen to talk all things buckwheat.

How is soba made?

SK: It’s a tough process – one that I spent 10 years learning, as buckwheat can be difficult to work with. But, the basic rundown of the process is that I use a large portion of Japanese buckwheat flour and a smaller portion of American wheat flour. I blend the flours, sift them and add water. Then, I knead until the dough comes together. Eventually it forms a very smooth ball, which I roll into a circle. Once the circle is thin enough, I roll that around a pair of sticks so the dough is wrapped around it and cylindrical. Then I fold the dough and use a press and blade to cut the noodles. Finished noodles go into a special soba box so they aren’t affected by any changes in temperature.

A common preparation of zaru soba – buckwheat noodles topped with seaweed and served with a dipping sauce.

What is the proper way to eat soba?

SK: It depends on the varieties of broth served with the noodles, as soba can come with thin soups or strong soups, sweet flavors or spicy flavors. The most common way of eating soba is zaru soba, or chilled soba, served with a dipping sauce and seaweed sprinkled on top. Take the noodles and dip them into the broth. Or, if you have warm broth, pour it over the soba noodles. And don’t hesitate to slurp.

What are some mistakes that Americans often make when eating soba?

SK: Being too hesitant to slurp!

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