Soba noodles offer a smooth, slippery texture that is pleasantly distinct from the noodles familiar in Western dishes.
HistoryNoodles were brought from China to Japan by the earliest Japanese Buddhist priests, who spread the noodles along with Buddhism in the ninth century. A Zen Buddhist monastery in Asakusa sold buckwheat noodle dishes to Buddhist pilgrims and gained so much wealth that the sale was forbidden, seen as threat to the ascetic lifestyle.
VarietiesSoba noodles can be bought dried, but many people swear by the superiority of homemade noodles, so seek out a recipe if you have the extra time to make yours.
Soba is available in stores in several varieties, including cha soba, janejo soba and youmugi soba. Cha soba contains buckwheat and tea leaves, which turns the soba a green color distinctive from the typical brownish gray. Jenejo soba is made with wild yam flour, and youmugi soba is made with buckwheat and mugwort.
Buying TipsSoba noodles are most likely to be carried in specialty or Asian markets but can also be found in the ethnic or pasta sections of some health food stores, natural food stores and grocery stores.
Avoid the cheapest brands, as you will be sacrificing too much quality, and try to find packages of smooth and mostly unbroken noodles (it is expected that some will break).
Storage TipsWhen unopened, soba noodles can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to eight months. Once cooked, they should be consumed as soon as possible.
Cooking TipsTo prepare soba noodles:
• Add noodles to boiling water just a few at a time.
• Stir water until it returns to a rapid boil so the noodles won’t stick.
• Boil for 8-10 minutes.
• Drain and rinse.
Eating TipsBecause of their slippery texture, soba noodles can make you feel like a fool scrambling to get them into your mouth. Don’t bother trying to be too graceful, as the traditional Japanese method of eating soba noodles is to suck loudly, bringing the noodles into the mouth and swallowing them with some commotion.
If dining out or as a guest, remember that it is a major faux paus to drink the plain broth in which soba noodles are sometimes served. Sometimes the broth can be watered down and then enjoyed, but you might just want to follow others’ lead.
Substitution TipsBoth soba and the thick, white Japanese wheat noodles called udon share a slithery, hard texture (as opposed to the pasty texture of Italian noodles). While significantly different to those who know their Japanese noodles, they may fill in for each other adequately in some recipes.
Nutrition NotesSoba noodles contain much buckwheat, a gluten-free and wheat-free carbohydrate. They also contain selenium, zinc and some protein.