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Soba is one of the three most popular noodle styles in Japan, the others being udon and ramen (which is Chinese in origin). These thin buckwheat noodles have a mellow nutty flavour and taut texture that can be quite addictive. They also pack in essential amino acids and are better for weight watchers than wheat-based noodles.
Origins of soba trace back to the 17th century, where it might have been popular as a preventive diet component against beriberi, a disease caused by the lack of the amino acid thiamine (which is absent in white rice).
While handmade noodles or artisan 100% buckwheat varieties can be hard to find outside soba bars in Japan, soba is making appearances at hip eateries across the world and remains a menu staple at all Japanese restaurants in Chennai.
The two most popular ways to eat soba are either cold (mori soba) or hot (kake soba). Kake soba resembles a bowl of ramen, with the noodles swimming in a heady mix of broth, meat, vegetables and condiments.
However, my favourite variant is the humble mori soba, also known as zaru soba after the perforated bamboo tray it is often served in. It is a simple preparation that highlights the characteristic buckwheat flavour of the noodles, and preserves a bite in the noodles. Served chilled, it is a perfect healthy meal for the hot Indian summer.
Soba noodles are boiled, washed, drained and then chilled before serving. It is accompanied by a bowl of Mentsuyu – a dipping sauce made from dashi, mirin and sweet soy sauce – and some finely chopped scallions. You mix the scallions into the sauce and dip a chopsticks’ pinch of soba before slurping it up.
You can try different forms of soba at the Japanese restaurants in Chennai, such as Dahlia, Sora Jima and Raku Raku.
If you want to make some at home, here is a twist on the classic recipe for a meal-in-a-bowl mori soba. You can purchase a packet of dried soba noodles at any Asian provisions store or posh supermarkets. I prefer the Korean Ottogi brand over the made-in-Haryana Red Dragon noodles. Also pick up a bottle of Mentsuyu, sesame oil (one specifically to be used as a Japanese condiment) and some wasabi paste.
1. Boil the soba noodles till al dente and drain. Save the drained water or sobayu. In Japan, sobayu is often served in a teapot to mix and drink with the remaining Mentsuyu at the end of the meal.
2. Wash the noodles vigorously by rubbing them against each other under a running tap. This step is important for removing as much surface starch as possible, which will expose the microscopic troughs on the noodles, essential for the sauce to stick.
3. Dry the noodles and let them chill in the fridge.
4. Take a tablespoon of sesame oil and slowly add a spoonful of Mentsuyu while whisking continuously. Add a dash of sobayu and a pinch of Wasabi paste to emulsify the mixture. Adjust the proportions as per your taste while maintaining the emulsion.
5. Mix with chilled soba and serve immediately. Garnished with finely chopped scallions.
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