A small mountain of soba sits on a Japanese zaru tray

Soba: Japan's Most Varied Noodle Experience

In the world of Japanese noodles, three types reign supreme. Japanese ramen is our personal favorite and has spread all over the world. Meanwhile, udon is a thick noodle that we have a soft spot for. However, the third and possibly most varied noodle that we’re going to cover here is soba—a grayish noodle that we become obsessed with every summer.

Read on to learn more about this tasty noodle, including its history, variety of dishes and more!

What is Soba?

Soba noodles sit in a bowl of a darker broth with green onions
This versatile noodle is delicious in all its forms, even in its simple, traditional version. Image via Unsplash

Soba is the word for noodles made with buckwheat flour that tend to have a grayish color thanks to said buckwheat. However, buckwheat flour tends to create somewhat brittle noodles, so many shops mix in wheat flour for a sturdier noodle. There are many shops that still use 100% buckwheat though.

Soba is thinner than udon and usually thinner than ramen, making it the thinnest of the three. That being said, it’s about as thick as a spaghetti noodle, giving it a nice bite. Buckwheat noodles are also perfect for both hot and cold dishes, so there’s tons of variety in soba noodle dishes.

So Not Soba

A bowl of Okinawa soba with pork belly, pork rib and green onion on top
Okinawa soba is definitely one of our favorite noodle dishes, but the kicker is that it's not soba. Image via Unsplash

Soba is also a complicated word because it’s used for dishes that don’t contain buckwheat flour noodles. Yakisoba is the biggest example. This dish of stir-fried noodles uses a noodle closer to ramen rather than soba. There’s also chuka soba that literally translates to Chinese soba but refers to ramen. If you go south to Okinawa, you’ll also find Okinawa soba, a popular dish that uses a noodle similar to ramen but with a thickness closer to udon.

The use of the word soba in these dishes is because ‘soba’ became a word that is also synonymous with thinner noodles. So, these thinner noodles from China and Okinawa (formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom) were called ‘soba’ as well.

Did you know there's tons of tasty instant soba in Japan? We did, and we made a box of tasty instant ramen, udon, soba and yakisoba just for you! Check out Nakama Noodles today to get your monthly ramen box!

Types of Soba Dishes

There are a very large variety of soba dishes here in Japan that are pretty standard for shops specializing in these buckwheat noodles. However, the main way these dishes are separated is by cold dishes and hot dishes. The reason is that there are different types based on which you want. Thus, we’ll explore cold dishes first and hot dishes second.

Cold Soba Dishes

A large wooden tray filled with cold soba next to two plates of tempura
Soba is also light enough that you can eat a lot of it and not feel bogged down. There are even soba-eating competitions. Image via Unsplash

Japan has several types of cold soba dishes, but many of them are similar to each other. That’s why we’ll put all of them in one quick section. These cold soba dishes are usually served alongside tsuyu, a dipping sauce made of dashi (Japanese broth), sweetened soy sauce and mirin (Japanese cooking rice wine). The toppings depend on the dish.

Hadaka soba: Hadaka means naked, making these soba noodles that are served on their own with no toppings.

Hiyashi soba: Hiyashi is just another way of saying chilled and features cold noodles as well as various toppings like natto, okra, grated daikon radish or Japanese yam puree. What sets this dish apart besides the toppings is the fact that people pour the soup on top.

Mori soba: This dish sees cold buckwheat noodles served on a traditional strainer plate or tray. This type won’t have a topping per se, but often comes with green onions, scallions and wasabi on the side.

Zaru soba: The zaru in the name comes from the name of the traditional strainer plate that it appears on. In reality, this dish is just mori soba with pieces of seaweed on top. It goes really well with tempura, creating a dish called tenzaru.

A tray of cold soba noodles next to tempura, dipping broth and extra toppings
While we love all kinds of soba, our personal favorite is tenzaru, which makes for a perfect summer meal.

Hot Soba Dishes

While the cold dishes are great for summer, but the hot dishes will warm your soul in any weather. Many of them also use tsuyu, but they use a less concentrated version as a soup instead of a dipping sauce.

Kake soba: Kake soba is a simple bowl of buckwheat noodles in a tsuyu broth with scallion on top.

Kitsune Soba: We’ve talked about kitsune udon before, and kitsune soba sees the udon swapped out for soba while keeping the fried tofu on top. However, this dish can also be called tanuki soba based on the area (which is kind of confusing with the next entry).

Tanuki Soba: Tanuki soba is the buckwheat noodle version of tanuki udon, featuring noodles with fried tempura bits. However, in areas where tanuki soba features fried tofu, the tempura bits version becomes haikara soba.

A bowl of hot soba in soup with fried tempura bits on top
In Kansai, this would be called haikara soba, but most places call it tanuki soba. Image via Instagram (@shinichi_kamii_3)

Tempura Soba: Tempura soba is a tasty dish that plops tasty pieces of tempura on top, with tempura shrimp being the most popular.

Tsukimi Soba: Tsukimi soba is moon-viewing a dish an egg over the noodles. The dish usually features the moon-like egg cracked open right into the soup with the soup poaching the egg. However, some cook the egg before placing it on top.

Sansai Soba: Sansai refers to mountain vegetables, many being root veggies. This dish sees buckwheat noodles topped with wild vegetables, including bracken root and bamboo shoots.

Toshikoshi Soba

A bowl of soba noodles in with daikon and soy sauce on top for New Years
Toshikoshi soba can be simple, like this version we ate a couple of years ago, or you can add some of your favorite toppings.

This is less of a type of soba and more of a tradition. The new year is a big holiday season in Japan and has several traditions that take place during this time. One of those traditions include eating soba just before the New Year starts or after in some regions. This is for good fortune in two different ways.

First, buckwheat noodles are easy to bite off and chew, so it has this idea of breaking off the old year (and the issues that came with it) to welcome in a better new year. With that in mind, eating soba at midnight or just after midnight feels like you’re not completely cutting off the past year and becomes bad luck for the new one.

Second, the noodles are long and have come to represent a long, healthy life. Plus, many people will go to their local shrine after midnight for New Year’s prayer, so the dish helps to keep people full (and warm) for their late night adventure.

Is Soba Vegetarian/Vegan?

Soba noodles in a soup topped with various green mountain vegetables
You might think that soba types like the mountain root soba would be vegetarian, but we have bad news (and good news). Image via Instagram (@k.foods_ramen)

Soba noodles themselves don’t use any animal products in their creation, so it’s vegan/vegetarian-friendly. And although many shops use wheat flour in their buckwheat noodles, some use 100% buckwheat flour, making them gluten free.

However, if you are a vegetarian, you have to be careful ordering soba. Some Japanese folks will tell you that it’s vegetarian because there isn’t any meat directly in it or don’t think of fish the same way they think of meat. The issue is that the broth and tsuyu are usually made with bonito flakes, which is fish.

So, instead of ordering soba in soup, order hadaka soba, one of the dipping sobas but with soy sauce instead, or just ask for salt. You can use the soy sauce as a vegetarian-friendly dip or just eat your soba salted (which is fairly common).

History of Soba

Two older manga illustrations show people dining at a soba shop
Soba and buckwheat have a long and interesting history in Japan, but we'll give you a quick rundown of the highlights. Image via Kobikian

Again, soba has a very long history in Japan. Buckwheat has been found at archeological sites that date back all the way to the Jomon period between 4000-2000 BCE. Japan pushed the growth of buckwheat way back in 722 after Empress Gensho directed it to help overcome issues with drought and famine.

Noodle dishes were eventually introduced from China, leading to the creation of soba noodles as early as 1574. According to a record kept at Josho-ji temple, it was served to workers who repaired the temple’s main hall. The dish continued to gain popularity, spreading from temples and monasteries to the rest of the country.

It was first seen as a commoners’ food but became more popular as the samurai and other higher classes began eating it too. This allowed plenty of shops and food stalls, or yatai, to prosper all over Japan.

Not only was it delicious, but it was a solution to a thiamine deficiency known as beriberi. Japan is a white rice country, but white rice is low in thiamine (or Vitamin B1). However, soba is plentiful in thiamine, so many people ate it to prevent beriberi.

Delivery Balancing Act

A traditional Demae delivery driver carries stacks of boxes full of soba bowls on a bicycle
Believe it or not, those boxes are full of buckwheat noodles, most likely with soup! Image via Getty Images

Food delivery services, or demae, have been around since the 1700s with wealthy regional lords often using the service at first. These services, when delivering soba, would carry whole stacks of soba bowls on their shoulders. And when bicycles were brought to Japan, they would carry the stack on their shoulders ON BICYCLES.

The Japanese government eventually had to outlaw the practice starting in 1961. However, authorities admitted that it would interfere with local businesses and openly overlooked violations. Eventually, cars and scooters became more common, so we no longer see this interesting soba tradition.

A bowl of soba noodles with lots of chili powder on top next to a tempura and miso soup
This noodle dish is a Japanese food icon for a reason, so be sure to give all its different types a try. Image via Unsplash

Now that you’re a theoretical soba master, all you have to do is go out and try it for yourself (or order one of our boxes and let us ship it out to you)! Where does soba rank in your noodle ranking? Let us know in the comments!

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