The history of buckwheat in Japan is probably as old as the one for rice. It is resilient against cold temperature as well as scarcity of rain. As a result it was always recommended to be grown in addition to rice to protect people against drought and starvation.
Before millstones became widely popular in the 14th century, buckwheat was cooked similarly to rice. Even after millstones made it possible to turn buckwheat into flour, the Japanese didn’t eat it as a noodle and instead ate it as Soba gaki or Dango, a simple mixture of flour and water that was steamed before serving.
It was believed that a Korean Buddhist had taught the Japanese that by adding a little flour buckwheat could be turned into noodles. By the mid 17th century, soba noodles slowly became popular as “Soba-Kiri.” Although Soba-Kiri was a noodle, it was still steamed during the Edo period (1603-1867).
Nowadays, soba is boiled in hot water and then rinsed thoroughly to get rid of the slime. It is common in Japan to serve the hot water used to boil the noodles when you order cold soba. After eating cold soba, you add this hot water to the dipping sauce and drink it like a soup. It’s been said that when you boil soba, you lose some of the nutritious value of buckwheat. Therefore drinking it later in the soup was believed to help people eat soba as a whole.
However, dietitians don’t agree that soba’s nutrients get lost in boiling water. It is probably more due to a custom that’s too popular to question that we have preserved this way of eating soba. It is actually nice to end the meal with hot soup after eating cold soba especially since the Japanese usually end a meal with miso soup and rice. It is not hard to see why this tradition became popular.
Variations of Soba noodles :
Sarashina soba 更級そば – This soba uses only the very center of buckwheat. It’s whiter than any other soba and usually lacks the aroma and flavor of other kinds of soba. However, its smooth texture and moderate flavor make it popular.
Inaka Soba 田舎そば - It is a whole grain buckwheat noodle that includes the hull. It is the darkest and most flavorful buckwheat among the varieties and has a distinctive aroma.
Jyuwari Soba/Kikko Soba 十割蕎麦、生粉そば - Both use 100% buckwheat to make noodles as opposed to Ni-Hachi Soba / 二八蕎麦 which uses 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour. The color can vary depending on which kinds of buckwheat flour is used.
How to eat:
In general, soba nuts say that soba noodles are enjoyed in the throat. What does that mean? If you want to try the Japanese soba nut way of eating it, don’t chew on the soba. Just bite it a few times and swallow so you can feel how the noodles pass through your throat.
It is also common to slurp soba noodles in Japan but it’s not slurping just for the sake of slurping. It is so that you can inhale the air with the noodles and breathe out from the nose to enjoy the aroma of the buckwheat. This is sort of similar to the technique of tasting wine.
Back in the Edo period, it was the coolest way to eat soba, sort of symbolizing the fast paced life in Tokyo. Similar to how New Yorkers grab food and start walking while eating, which is considered quite impolite in Japan, Edokko (people who had lived in Tokyo for three generations) quickly slurped their soba and then left the soba stools right away.
- Before dipping into soy sauce, eat the noodle by itself to taste and find the characteristics of soba.
- Then taste the dipping sauce. Consider both the flavor of the noodle and dipping sauce and decide the portion of noodle you’ll dip into the sauce. You should hold your dipping sauce by hand.
- Never drop the whole noodle in the dipping sauce and never put the chopsticks in the sauce while eating.
- After eating several times with dipping sauce, add yakumi, chopped scallions, grated daikon radish and so on.
- After you finish eating soba, you can add sobayu into the dipping sauce to make your own soup.