Soba noodles consist of buckwheat and wheat flour, which have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor with a firm texture. The Japanese eat these buckwheat noodles year-round, both hot and chilled.
Soba noodles (蕎麦・そば) are a type of Japanese noodle made from buckwheat flour or a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour. They are available fresh or dried. Soba shops with noodles made in-house are a real treat as the dough is highly brittle and difficult to knead, thus requiring mastery of the craft. High in nutrition, it’s a specialty that you won’t want to miss when you visit Japan.
Table of Contents
What Are Soba Noodles
Soba noodles are long buckwheat and wheat flour noodles. It has a light or dark grayish brown color.
Traditionally, soba consists of buckwheat and water. Adding wheat flour acts as a binder to make it easier to form the dough. Besides buckwheat and wheat flour, there are noodles with additions such as matcha, ume plum, and yam, for color, flavor, and aroma.
The Japanese eat them chilled with a dipping sauce or in a hot dashi broth. While some non-Japanese interpretations call for a loaded bowl with veggies, tofu, and protein or eaten as a noodle salad, with quality noodles, it’s best served simply for the flavors to shine through.
Confusingly, in some cases, “soba” can also refer to noodles not made of buckwheat. Examples include chuka soba (中華そば, “Chinese noodles” – refers to ramen noodles), yakisoba, and Okinawa soba.
What Does It Taste
It has an earthy and deep nutty flavor from the buckwheat. Some would also describe it as a slight grainy taste.
Varieties Of Soba
The world of soba is quite deep. There are two main varieties of soba: styles and the ratio of buckwheat. Here are some names you may encounter.
- Sarashina soba (更科蕎麦): Made with refined buckwheat flour, the color is off-white, and cut into thin noodles
- Yabu soba (藪蕎麦): Originating from Toshima-ku (northwestern Tokyo), the noodles are slightly green from the buckwheat skin
- Inaka soba (田舎蕎麦): Dark in color, with a strong buckwheat flavor and thick noodles. It’s made of unhulled buckwheat seeds ground into coarse flour
Ratio of buckwheat
- 100% buckwheat: Juwari soba (十割蕎麦) is extremely hard and chewy but is highly aromatic
- 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat: Hachiwari soba (八割そば) is the most basic and well-balanced
- 20% buckwheat and 80% wheat: Niwari soba (二割蕎麦) is the smoothest noodles with a slight hint of buckwheat. It tends to be the most affordable
Origin Of Soba
Soba supposedly originated in China and was brought to Japan toward the end of the Jomon period (10,000 to 300 BC). While there are several theories of the origin of soba, soba was first eaten as boiled dumplings called soba-gaki (蕎麦がき). You can still find soba-gaki on the menu of some soba restaurants.
It wasn’t until the Edo period (1603-1867) that soba became the thin, long noodles we know today. Soba was popular street food as it could be prepared and eaten quickly.
Soba Noodles On New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, or Ōmisoka (大晦日), it is custom for the Japanese to eat soba. Called Toshikoshi Soba (年越し蕎麦, “year-crossing noodles”), it’s eaten to usher in the coming year. The thin, long soba represents longevity and symbolizes strength and resilience like the tough buckwheat crop. The dish is usually served in its simplest form, in a hot dashi broth with finely chopped green onion. Nowadays, soba noodles are also enjoyed with tempura, fish cakes, or poached egg.
Famous Regional Soba – Nagano Prefecture
Regions particularly well-known for its premium soba is Nagano Prefecture. It’s an area where 80% of the land is mountainous, a pristine environment for growing buckwheat but not rice. Surrounded by highlands with volcanic ash soil and fresh, clean water, Nagano also has very distinctive temperatures that are well-suited for soba production. Togakushi (戸隠) and Kurohime (黒姫) are just two of the more famous soba production centers located in the prefecture. You can even find local shops and facilities offering soba-uchi (蕎麦打ち, making soba by hand).
Interested in learning more about soba making? Visit Togakushi Soba Museum in Nagano prefecture.
What Does It Taste Like
Soba noodles have an earthy and deep nutty flavor from the buckwheat. You’ll notice the difference immediately if you compare the taste to udon, wheat flour noodles. A higher percentage of buckwheat results in a more aromatic and nutty flavor, but the noodles are harder and firm.
How To Use
To cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Unlike pasta, there’s no need for salt. Add soba to the boiling pot in a circular motion, separating the noodles from each other. Cook the noodles for 4-5 minutes or according to the package instructions (each brand is slightly different). Stir the noodles once in a while, so they don’t stick. Cook until tender.
Once cooked, quickly drain the noodles and rinse under running cold water to remove the starch and prevent further cooking. Drain the water completely before you serve it cold or hot.
Recipes Using Soba Noodles
Where to Buy
Soba noodles are commonly sold dried. A typical package comes with 3 to 6 bundles of noodles. You can also find fresh or frozen soba in the refrigerated or frozen sections at Japanese or Asian grocery stores or some gourmet stores.
How To Choose The Best
If you are looking for soba noodles from Japan, find the word そば on the package. If you want to try the real deal, try juwari-soba that’s made of 100% buckwheat flour.
In the U.S., you can find some brands like Hakubaku Organic Soba, Hime Soba Noodles, or Eden Foods Soba (this is 100% buckwheat; gluten-free) available online or at your local grocery stores.
How To Store
Like other dried noodles, store dried soba in a low-humidity, cool, dark place. Once you open the package, make sure to seal it properly.
Fresh soba will last 1-2 weeks but check the expiration date and use up quickly.
For cooked soba noodles, you can store leftovers in the freezer or fridge. Consume within two days.
You can replace soba noodles with rice noodles, whole wheat noodles, or udon. However, these substitutes contain gluten and won’t have the same nutritional content as soba.
In Japan, soba is considered a health food. Even though it is still not as trendy and well-known as ramen in the U.S., many recognize the unique flavor of soba noodles as a healthy alternative to wheat-based noodles.
Buckwheat flour is not a wheat but an ancient grain that is a good source of nutrients like protein, fiber, iron, carbohydrates, thiamine, and manganese. Soba contains fewer calories, more fiber, and more protein than spaghetti and other pasta, so it won’t spike your blood sugar levels. For those who prefer a low-carb diet, soba is an excellent choice as it is low in fat and calories.
Soba is a delicious alternative for those unable to consume wheat. Make sure to check the ingredient list before purchasing.
Q: What’s the difference between soba and udon noodles?
One significant difference is its ingredients. Soba is made of buckwheat and sometimes wheat flour, whereas udon is made with just wheat noodles. Read more about the difference between soba and udon noodles here.
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