Soba noodles are a Japanese noodle made primarily from buckwheat flour. In parts of Japan, soba is the primary starch, and people often eat them several times a day. The noodles are nutty, slightly bitter, and delicious eaten both in hot soups and cold salads. The recipe that I’ve prepared here is a cold salad of soba noodles dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil, and tossed with cucumbers and scallions. It is the kind of meal that you can throw together in ten minutes and you will be happy to eat every night of the week.
Origins of soba:
Like many foods that are now distinctly Japanese, soba noodles originally arrived from China. They are made primarily from buckwheat flour, which gave them some distinct advantages historically. Firstly, buckwheat has higher levels of protein and fiber than wheat, as well as being naturally gluten-free. Secondly, and historically more importantly, buckwheat is also high in thiamine, a nutrient which is very low in white rice. A dietary deficiency of thiamine leads to a condition called beriberi, which is quite debilitating. Perhaps counterintuitively, in Japan during the Edo period the wealthy residents of what is now Tokyo were more susceptible to thiamine deficiency due to their high consumption of the more expensive white rice, while the rural poor, who ate a diet high in soba, were unlikely to develop beriberi. Eventually, the pieces of that puzzle were all put together, and the people of Tokyo began also eating large amounts of soba, a tradition that exists to this day.
The cooking of soba noodles is often made intimidating by the internet. It seems like every recipe I read about soba noodles has some warning. Sometimes they tell you that salting the water will make the noodles turn to mush. Other times they say that if you don’t rinse them before cooking, the noodles will turn gummy and bloated. And sometimes that rinse needs to happen after the noodles are cooked. I can tell you that I have always cooked soba noodles in salted water and without any rinsing (water is precious in the bus), and I have never had either of those problems. Cooks on the internet love to create problems so that they can solve them for you. In my experience, soba is just as simple as any other noodle.
Soba noodles, being made from buckwheat flour, have more protein and fiber than wheat noodles, and are naturally gluten-free. It is important to check the label however, as many soba noodles are made with twenty to thirty percent wheat flour to reduce brittleness.
This recipe is for a simple and quick cold soba salad, but they really are a delicious noodle in just about any setting. Feel free to modify this recipe with whatever strikes your fancy, like cooked proteins or other cold, crunchy vegetables. Soba are also great in soups, be it something Japanese-inspired, or a simple chicken noodle.
Sesame Soba Noodles
8 oz. soba noodles
⅓ cup soy sauce
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sesame oil
½ tsp black pepper
2 tsp sugar
½ cup scallions, thinly slices
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
½ cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
Start the noodles in a pot of lightly salted water and boil around 8-10 minutes until cooked.
While the noodles are boiling, combine soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, pepper, and sugar in a mixing bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Use a bowl large enough for the noodles as well.
When the noodles are finished, drain them and add them to the bowl with the sauce. Add the cucumber, scallion, and sesame seeds as well. Toss until everything is well-coated in sauce and serve.
Garnish with additional sliced scallions and toasted sesame seeds, if desired.