Rice might be the staple food of Japan, but noodles aren’t far behind. Japan is famous for its massive variety of them. Ramen, udon, soba, somen... The list goes on and on. Yet among Japan’s noodle varieties one stands out for its unique preparation method and strong flavor: Yakisoba!
Easily confused with soba, Japanese buckwheat noodles, yakisoba is actually completely different. In fact, these thick yellow noodles aren’t made of buckwheat at all, but regular wheat. This makes them much more similar to ramen noodles. And while soba is served in a hot soup or cold on bamboo, yakisoba noodles are stir-fried with meat, vegetables and a special sauce.
Read on to discover the fascinating origin and history of yakisoba, Japan’s unique yakisoba bread, and even how to prepare this hearty dish yourself!
Origin of Yakisoba
If you ask the average Japanese person, they’ll probably tell you yakisoba is an original Japanese recipe. However, this isn’t 100% accurate.
The recipe actually has its origins in chow mein, a popular dish from Northern China. That’s right: ramen isn’t the only Japanese noodle dish that isn’t fully Japanese in origin.
Chow mein was brought from China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Japan was beginning to open up to foreign trade. Chinese dock workers wanted to eat food from their home country, and Japanese cooks saw the opportunity to serve them.
How Japan Improved the Recipe
It would be a mistake to assume, however, that yakisoba is a mere copy of chow mein. The recipe evolved over time to become the yakisoba everyone in Japan knows and loves today.
The dish in its current form was invented in the 1950s. As a result of food shortages and small government rations, food stalls called yatai (including some using black market ingredients) began popping up everywhere that hungry people existed… which was all across Japan.
To add volume to relatively expensive wheat noodles, stall owners mixed in pork, carrots, and cabbage. However, they found that the water released from cooking the vegetables made the resulting dish too thin and watery, so they initially added Worcestershire sauce for flavor. When they decided that the British classic wasn’t quite doing it, they invented the special yakisoba sauce. It’s thick and flavorful, similar to a teriyaki sauce, and gave the recipe some much-needed punch.
Once the recipe was perfected, it quickly spread from the food stalls to become popular at dagashi-ya, cheap candy and snack stores, and also spread into home cooking. Since it’s strongly and sweetly flavored, Japanese parents saw it as a great way to get some vegetables into their picky kids’ stomachs. It’s also found its way into izakaya (Japanese pubs) and even high-class restaurants across Japan.
Yakisoba is very similar from shop to shop, but what makes every shop unique is their sauce recipe. Many restaurants, izakaya, and food stalls will create their own special recipe for the sauce that they will guard with their lives to keep a secret.
Yakisoba is usually served on a plate or in a bowl and eaten with chopsticks, just like other Japanese noodle dishes. Sitting down to eat this dish is all well and good, but when you’re at a festival or on the busy streets of Tokyo or Osaka, a more mobile way to eat is obviously better!
Hence the invention of yakisoba-pan, or yakisoba bread. It’s basically a long roll of bread, similar to a hot dog bun, with plenty of yakisoba lovingly placed in the middle. It’s packed with carbohydrates and is a super convenient street food.
One place this food is super popular is in Japanese high schools. Because it’s cheap, filling, and you can carry it around, it’s the most popular cafeteria food in Japan. We highly recommend this simple yet tasty street food for when you’re next in Japan!
How To Make Yakisoba
Are you keen to have a go at making this popular Japanese street food for yourself? Follow this simple recipe and you’ll have a hearty meal ready in as little as half an hour!
Ingredients (serves 3 – 4 people [or 2 very hungry people])
For the sauce you will need:
5 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
5 teaspoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons tomato paste
5 teaspoons soy sauce
3 teaspoons brown sugar
For the main dish you will need:
500g of yakisoba noodles (you can get them from your local Asian grocery store, or order them online)
450g of pork belly
1 small yellow onion
2 green onions
100g of canned bamboo shoots (drained)
Two large leaves of cabbage
Salt, pepper, and chili powder to taste
Prepare your sauce by mixing together all the ingredients thoroughly. Make sure the sugar is fully dissolved, and if the sauce isn’t sweet enough for you add a bit more.
Slice your meat and vegetables. Big, irregular chunks won’t cook properly so make sure everything is sliced thinly and evenly.
Cook the meat and vegetables in a large griddle pan or wok. Cook the meat first, followed by the carrots, then the onions and bamboo shoots, and finally the cabbage.
Now for the noodles. Luckily, yakisoba noodles come pre-cooked so all you have to do is either put them into a sieve and pour some boiling water through them to heat them up OR boil them for a very short time.
Add the noodles to the meat and vegetables, pour in your sauce and toss together using a spatula or tongs until everything is thoroughly coated. Then, transfer to plates and tuck in.
If you can’t eat everything in one go the yakisoba can be frozen for up to a month. Just defrost in the microwave to warm it up.
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a kind of savory Japanese pancake, places the pancake on top of yakisoba, making it more filling and complex. Image via Unsplash
The Best Japanese Noodles Ever?
The debate over which kind of Japanese noodles are best rages eternal. But what do you think? What is your favorite noodle? How does our recipe rank for you? Let us know in the comments!