Japan must be the only country in the world where museums dedicated to menrui - noodles reach into double figures. The phrase menrui wa amari suki ja nai - “I’m not too keen on noodles” - is heard about as often as a crooked Nagata-cho politician’s admission of guilt. Everyone has their favorite restaurant (preferably unknown to anyone else), a favorite dish, a favorite dashi stock or soup or tsuyu dipping sauce, even a favorite convenience store variety.
Back in 2002 I wrote, "Endless discussion fuels a huge media industry. Noodle TV? Only a matter of time". I hadn't envisaged Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but I wasn't far wrong. For once, however, the hype is justified. Japan’s noodles may not match Italy’s in variety and scale, but in quality, subtlety, presentation, and sheer style, they know no equal. Here we introduce the most 'Japanese-y' of the genre: buckwheat.
Soba Buckwheat Noodles
The aristocratic star in the Japanese noodle firmament, soba (buckwheat, or buckwheat noodles) was long thought to be relative newcomer to the archipelago. But the buckwheat plant has recently been discovered in spore form, in burial tombs dating back to the Jomon period.
No doubt this has caused high excitement, academic outrage and possibly even a bit of scientific skulduggery in the closeted world of Japanese noodle archaeology. Until the discovery there was popular debate over whether the noodle was really invented at Seiun-dera temple in Yamanashi Prefecture, or 60km or so up the road in Kiso, Nagano Prefecture, sometime around 1596. Or was it 1614? Or…
Oblivious to academe, the general populace slurps on, equating soba with Nagano in general, and Togakushi village in particular, both famed nationally for Shinshu soba. Other major soba-making areas include Iwate Prefecture, with its all-you-can-eat, rather unfortunately named, wanko soba, where noodles are served in small bowls with tsuyu dipping sauce and accompaniments, and Hyogo Prefecture's picturesque castle town Izushi, renowned for sara soba, which is served on many individual plates. Jinbe is the locals' favorite. The tiny village of Tokose, also in rural Hyogo, has just a handful of restaurants producing lovely soba.
Buckwheat’s popularity arose not with its delicate aroma or distinctive, subtle, elegant-but-earthy taste, but with its ability to deter starvation. It grows in thin mountain soils where nothing else will, and, with its rapid 75day passage from seed to grain, it made an excellent backup whenever the rice crop failed. It is also packed with nutrients, protein, and heaps of vitamins such as C, B and E.
Soba noodles are traditionally sliced by hand, to make teuchi soba, but as the dough breaks easily when stretched after kneading, a binding agent, usually wheat, is added, or the soba is sliced by machine. A ratio of 20% wheat flour to 80% buckwheat - hachiwari - is said to produce the finest results, though some purists swear by the dark 100 % buckwheat known as juwari soba.
Buckwheat noodles can be eaten hot or cold. Seasonal preferences apply, but cold soba always carries a slightly snooty air. If you first order tennuki which consists of just cold zarusoba, without tempura, which you then order as a separate item, it implies you are a soba snob of the highest order. A rather more humble method is to order dashimaki egg roll and ohiya cold sake first, then the soba of your choice.
Hot soba is served as-is in the bowl. Cold soba comes on a bamboo grid to be dipped in separate cold, strong tsuyu. You add ingredients such as grated daikon giant white radish, kizaminegi sliced spring onion, yamaimo pounded yam, bonito flakes, yuzu the wonderfully fragrant Japanese citron, and, ubiquitously, wasabi. The best establishments will either grate the wasabi in front of you, or allow you to do it yourself.
Popular cold buckwheat soba dishes include zarusoba and morisoba (like zarusoba but without dried nori. Hot favourites are tempura soba, and kamo nanban and tori nanban, featuring duck and chicken respectively, with sliced spring onion. Another is the exquisite sansai soba, whose mountain vegetables perfectly complement a delicate broth and the subtle buckwheat flavour.
Adding a final touch to the proceedings are condiments, generally sansho the gorgeously aromatic Japanese pepper, and also shichimi togarashi seven spice mix. Buckwheat noodle shops, known as sobaya, can be humble mom and pop places, local lunch joints, regional specialists or refined establishments with centuries of pedigree. Half the fun lies in exploring for the ones you like best.