そばとうどん / Soba and Udon Noodles －Japanese Food Culture that has been Loved for a Looooong Time－
Just as with rice, Japanese food culture wouldn’t be the same without noodles, which have so many varieties and ways to enjoy them. The facts surrounding noodles are so profound that you could talk all night about them. Ramen noodles are so popular that you could even call them a national food of Japan, but the noodles that really represent the country are Kanto Soba and Kansai Udon. Noodles are traditionally eaten around New Year in the belief that they contribute to a long healthy life, so will you have ‘long thin’ Toshikoshi soba (Year End soba noodles) or ‘long thick’ Toshiake udon (New Year udon noodles) this coming New Year?
Made of buckwheat flour, soba noodles carry a strong health food image, while udon noodles, made of wheat flour, are readily digested and a quick source of energy. Both have their own combination of ingredients, colour, shape that lets you enjoy many different flavours depending on the soups and sauces you have them with. Noodles are a reliable food source that can be eaten in different ways with each season always giving us something to look forward to eating and improving our appetite. ‘One day, one serve of noodles’; eat an even healthier, happier diet with soba and udon noodles.
The History of Soba and Udon Noodles
It is believed that noodles where brought from China to Japan during the envoys to Tang China around the Nara period (AD 710 - 794), and in the many years since then their production has spread to every part of the country, varying in shape and ways to eat them. When it was first introduced, udon was a similar shape to manjū (Japanese sweet rice cakes filled with red bean paste) and was known as konton, but it is said that it was called udon when it began to be served hot.
It is believed that soba was originally eaten in its grain form as a porridge or made into flour and kneaded to make sobakaki (buckwheat flour dumplings) or sobayaki (buckwheat flour mixed with water and fried like a pancake). It is said that buckwheat flour was first processed into noodles between the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Soba is a Top Class Health Food
Soba noodles are rich in vitamins B1 and B2 which are known for their effectiveness in the recuperation of fatigue and protection against beriberi, a nervous system ailment. Vitamins B1 and B2 both increase the body’s resistance to ailments so, getting ready for the hot summer ahead, it might also be good in preventing the weariness caused by summer’s heat. Soba is one of only a few foods which contain rutin, a special nutrient that works to regulate capillary permeability which leads to improved blood circulation, and is also said to control high blood pressure. In addition, it contains good quality protein and well-balanced amino acids helping the body to make blood and muscles. Because of its balanced nutritional value, soba is known as a top class health food. However, it also contains constituents that lead to allergic reactions, so ensure that you check if you are allergic before you eat it for the first time.
Production and Ways to Enjoy
At the beginning of the Edo Period (AD 1603 - 1868) soba noodles were made without the addition of any solidifiers and were known as kisoba, but during the middle of the Edo Period wheat flour was added as a solidifier and came to be known as ni-hachi-soba (literally 2-8 soba - 2 parts solidifier, 8 parts buckwheat flour). Its smoothness made it popular, becoming the most mainstream type of soba noodles. Through adding wheat flour and other solidifiers such as eggs, naga-imo (Chinese yam), yama-imo (Japanese mountain yam), and konyaku (konjac) characteristic textures and firmness can be enjoyed.
During winter, people in Tokyo usually eat soba in a warm broth with finely chopped spring onions, boiled spinach and toppings including chicken and kamaboko (fish sausage), but in Shinshū, even in winter, soba is eaten chilled served as zarusoba (chilled soba noodles served on a bamboo draining tray topped with shredded seaweed). On a hot summer’s day, foods like chilled zarusoba and sōmen (very thin wheat-flour noodles) really cool you down, and adding a little wasabi to the dipping sauce stimulates your appetite so it really is a ‘must have’ item on your summer menu. After you have eaten the zarusoba, it is common to pour sobayu (the leftover water used to boil the noodles) into the remaining dipping sauce and drink it.
The custom of eating soba noodles on New Year’s Eve became established during the Edo Period. The origin of this custom is the belief that, just as the noodles are long and thin, by eating them you and your family will live a long, healthy and thrifty life.
Famous Soba Noodles from across Japan
•Wanko Soba（Iwate Prefecture）
Wanko soba is a style of eating soba noodles in small servings in a small bowl, constantly topped up by the waiter until you have eaten your fill. The word ‘wanko’ is local dialect for o-wan, meaning bowl.
Shizuoka prefecture is famous for its green tea. These green tea leaves are powdered and added to the buckwheat flour then made into soba noodles. The green tea colour and flavour even further increase your appetite.
Production and Ways to Enjoy
Udon is made by mixing wheat flour, water and salt. In addition to the common thick round noodles, there are also the flattened noodles that originate from Nagoya called kishimen, the extra fine, thin sōmen, which are made from practically the same ingredients in the same manner as udon, as well as hiyamugi which are thicker than sōmen but thinner than udon. Although pasta is also made from wheat flour, udon is made from medium strength flour while pasta is made from semolina, the course flour made from hard durum wheat. At first glance udon looks very similar to Vietnamese pho noodles, however the main ingredient in pho noodles is rice flour.
Like soba noodles, in summer udon is eaten chilled as zaruudon, but it is most popularly eaten in a warm broth. In the Kansai region the broth is mostly made using usukuchi (light) soy sauce and salt, contrasting with the dark colour of the broth made in the Kantō region made with koikuchi (dark) soy sauce. In addition to chopped spring onions other condiments used to add flavour include white sesame and finely grated ginger.
On hot summer days, pour a little chilled water into a flat bowl and add some sōmen; top it with thinly sliced, chilled tomato and cucumber, cherries and ice. Thinly slice some okura (okra) and put it on some chilled tofu and you have a perfect nutritious and delicious meal.
Toshiake udon is a new custom of eating pure white perfect udon at the beginning of the New Year. It is believed that eating the fat, long noodles help you to lead a fullfilled, long life as well as wishing for the happiness of all people for the new year. You can eat this udon from January 1 to 15 and it is topped with things that are red and white (red and white are the colours of celebration in Japan) such as red kamaboko (fish sausage), pickled plum, and tempura prawn.
Famous Udon Noodles from across Japan
•Inaniwa Udon （Akita Prefecture）
Thinner than regular udon and slightly flattened, inaniwa udon’s smooth, firm texture leaves you wanting more.
•Sanuki Udon （Kagawa Prefecture）
Kagawa prefecture, also called ‘Udon Prefecture’, is famous for their stiff, handmade udon noodles known as sanuki udon.
Santate – the Key to Delicious Soba Noodles
There are three necessary requirements to make delicious soba noodles and they are known as ‘santate’ (the three ‘tate’s). These are hikitate (freshly milled), uchitate (freshly made), and yudetate (freshly cooked). For delicious soba noodles, it is vital that after the flour is milled, the noodles are quickly made, quickly boiled and then quickly served. Soba noodles quickly degrade, so they come with the warning that they must be made and promptly served.
The National Dried Noodle Cooperative Society Association of Japan have established July 7 as ‘Tanabata・Sōmen day’ in an attempt to create a new custom where sōmen is eaten on that day. Tanabata is a star festival celebrating the one day each year that the two lovers separated by the Milky Way, Hikoboshi and Orihime, can meet. Wishes are written on paper and tied to sticks of bamboo grass and people pray make them come true. Apparently by eating and giving sōmen on Tanabata will make your wishes come true.
Have a great year with soba and udon!
Photography assistance: LITTLE TOKYO