Zaru soba (cold soba noodles) is the best way to eat soba (buckwheat) noodles – the simplest form of eating noodles and so fast to make. It is a popular summer dish in Japan of course but if you want to be like a connoisseur and enjoy the soba itself, then eat cold even in winter. Use konbu dashi to make it a perfect vegetarian dish.
I was going to post something more substantial this week but Sydney was suffering from a massive heatwave when I was preparing for this post and I had no energy to cook a dish that requireed some effort. So I decided to post the simplest cold noodle dish – zaru soba (ざる蕎麦, cold soba noodles).
Soba (蕎麦 or そば) is buckwheat in Japanese but when people say “soba”, it often refers to soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat flour or a combination of buckwheat and wheat flours, light brown and very thin. It is quite a contrast to udon which is wheat noodles, white and usually much thicker than soba.
Just like sushi shops in Japan, there are many Japanese noodle shops which specialise in soba. These specialty soba noodle shops make the noodles from buckwheat flour. Often you can see the process of making soba noodles even from the outside the shop.
There are several prefectures which are famous for good soba noodles and one of them is Nagano prefecture where I often go to ski. When I was a child, my father took me and my siblings to Nagano to ski every winter and spring. This annual event lasted until we graduated high school. Soba, particularly cold soba, is my father’s favourite food and we ate freshly made soba noodles every time we went there.
Perhaps because of the repetitive soba eating experience in Nagano since my childhood, I became fond of soba noodles as well. In fact, I like soba better than udon. I like the flavour of buckwheat.
Soba can be served as a cold noodle dish like zaru soba or can be in hot soup with toppings as a noodle soup. But if you really want to enjoy the flavour of soba itself, I would strongly recommend that you eat it cold. I read in a Japanese soba article that some soba fanatics would not consider the soba in hot soup as “soba”. I don’t agree though.
Cold soba is very easy to make and great on a hot summer day when you don’t even have much of an appetite. All you need to do is to boil soba and make dipping sauce which can be made ahead of time.
Zaru soba and Mori soba
When you go to a Japanese soba noodle shop, you will find zaru soba and mori soba (盛り蕎麦). Both are cold soba with exactly the same noodle and dipping sauce. The only difference is that zaru soba has shredded nori (roasted seaweed sheet) on it.
According to soba history, the name “mori soba” came from the verb “moru (盛る)”, which in this context means to pile up on a plate. And zaru soba did not exist initially. Then one of the soba chefs in Tokyo plated soba noodles on a flat bamboo basket/strainer for a change. The flat bamboo basket/strainer is called “zaru (ざる)” and zaru soba was born. Both were just noodles on a plate or bamboo basket/strainer so shredded nori was added on top of zaru soba noodles to distinguish it from mori soba.
Dried Soba Noodles
In Sydney, I buy dried soba noodles from Asian/Japanese grocery stores and simply boil them. I think some supermarkets sell dried soba noodles, too. There are quite a few different brands of dried soba noodles and you might be confused as to which brand might be the best.
Some soba brands indicate the ratio of buckwheat and wheat flours mixed in the soba noodles. The more buckwheat flour, the more flavour and the more expensive. Some contain mountain yam like the soba on the right in the photo above. It is really your preference as to what sort of soba noodles are the best, but in general the more expensive dried soba noodles cook to al dente better. I once bought a pack of dried soba noodles from the supermarket close by. Its colour was close to white instead of the brown colour of buckwheat. When cooked, it was almost crumbly even if I did not cook for a long time.
A pack of dried soba noodles usually come in 2-4 bunches. Each bunch is for one serve and tied with a paper or plastic tape. Remove the tape and spread noodles into boiling water to boil.
It is important to rinse under cold water after boiling. This serves two purposes – to remove stickiness around each noodle and to stop further cooking. This needs to be done regardless of whether you are eating them cold or hot.
Making dipping sauce for zaru soba, or mori soba for that matter, is based on the simple ratio of dashi stock, soy sauce and mirin – 4:1:1 respectively. If you read my post Tempura, you will notice that this is identical to the tempura dipping sauce. Other recipes might use slightly different combinations of dashi, soy sauce and mirin but I use this ratio for both and I am happy with it.
To elaborate this further, I can tell you that by doubling the amount of dashi to 8:1:1 (dashi:soy sauce:mirin), you can make broth for hot soba noodle soup. Isn’t it easy to remember?
How to Eat Zaru Soba
Zaru soba is served with a small bowl of dipping sauce, finely chopped shallots (scallions) and wasabi. Usually at soba restaurants, dipping sauce is served in a small bottle and you add an appropriate amount of sauce into a small bowl, which is also supplied. Shallots and wasabi should be mixed into the dipping sauce but it is optional, hence they are usually served on a small place separately.
The best chopsticks to eat noodles with would be a pair of disposable wooden or bamboo chopsticks. I personally prefer wooden ones with a flat tip, not a pointy tip, which makes it easy to pick up few strands of noodles.
Pick up a few strands of noodles and dip only the bottom half of them into the dipping sauce by simply lowering the chopsticks with noodles. Many people drop all the noodles they just picked up into the dipping sauce but this is not a real gourmet way of eating buckwheat noodles. By dipping only part of the soba noodles in, you can taste the flavour of the noodles and enjoy it better.
Can you see that the yaki nori piece at the top of the photo above is not wet while the bottom part of the noodles and yaki nori pieces are dipped in the sauce?
I mentioned this in my blog page “Japanese Eating Etiquette” under the menu “About” that you should make a slurping noise when eating noodles. Zaru soba is not the noodles in soup but it gets dipped in dipping sauce so the same rules apply. Japanese people find it odd to see people eating noodles quietly. It is a cultural signifier to feel enjoyment from the diners.
- 2 bunches of dried soba noodles (note 1)
- 200ml (6.8oz) dashi stock (refer to Home Style Japanese Dashi Stok)
- 50ml (1.7oz) soy sauce
- 50ml (1.7oz) mirin
- 2 tbsp finely chopped shallots (scallions)
- wasabi (Japanese horseradish)
- Julienned yaki nori (roasted seaweed sheet)
- Add dipping sauce ingredients into a saucepan and heat over medium heat.
- When small bubbles start coming up around the edge, let it cook for about 15 seconds and turn off the heat. Cool down at least to room temperature (note 2).
- Boil water in a large saucepan. Remove the tape from each bunch (if it is bunched) and spread noodles into the pan. Mix for about 15 seconds ensuring that each strand is separated.
- Boil for the duration recommended on the back of the pack (4-6 minutes depending on the brand).
- Drain into colander and rinse well under running water. Shake the colander well to remove water at the bottom of the colander and leave until required.
- Plate soba noodles on a large plate to share or two plates for individual serves.
- Sprinkle yaki nori on the top.
- Serve with dipping sauce in a small bowl with condiments.
2. You could serve the dipping sauce warm if you like. Some people in Japan eat zaru soba with warm dipping sauce. But I personally like it cool otherwise it seems to defeat the whole purpose of having cold noodles.
3. If you don't use yaki nori, then call it mori soba.