Soba is the name both of a thin, beige-colored noodle and of the grain (similar to buckwheat) from which these noodles are made. Firm and slightly coarse in texture, cooked soba are usually served chilled and garnished with dark strips of crisp nori (roasted laver). A sweetened soy sauce for dipping and condiments such as wasabi (fiery green horseradish), grated fresh ginger and chopped scallions accompany the noodles. Occasionally, soba will be served hot in a garnished soup and seasoned with a blend of crushed hot spices known as shichimi togarashi.
Somen are very thin, pure-white noodles. For a refreshing summertime dish, they are served cold in large crystal bowls of ice water. Grated ginger, chopped scallions or shiso (an aromatic leaf of the beefsteak plant) and a soy-based dipping sauce typically accompany somen noodles.
Udon are thick, white, slippery noodles, which are served in a hot, hearty soup. Garnished with a variety of vegetables and slices of fish sausage (kamaboko), fried bean curd (abura agé), batter-fried shrimp (tempura) or poached eggs, these noodles make a filling snack indeed. In the northern parts of Japan, udon are often added to the flavorful broth resulting from nabé mono (stewlike, one-pot cookery).
The Japanese have adapted Chinese stir-fried noodles into a dish known as yaki soba. Shredded pork, cabbage and soft egg noodles are sautéed on a griddle. Seasoned with a spicy, dark sauce and garnished with chopped red pickled ginger and flakes of green laver, yaki soba is a colorful and aromatic dish.
Sapporo (the largest city of Hokkaido island) is famous for its Chinese-style soup noodles, known as ramen. A large bowl of these is sure to warm you on even the most blustery of winter days. By the way, noodle eating in Japan, as in most of the Orient, is a noisy affair. Slurping sounds are perfectly acceptable; in fact, they are equated with full enjoyment and are a compliment to the chef. So don’t hesitate to show your appreciation if you’re in proper company.
© 1986 Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.