Cold soba noodles, “zaru soba” in Japanese, is a light, refreshing meal that’s served more often in the summer. Want an easy, 10-minute recipe for chilled soba when it’s too hot to cook? Are you looking for a not-so-heavy alternative to wheat pasta? This dish is ideal for noodle-lovers who are trying to eat healthier and lose weight.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know how to make cold soba noodles at home. You’ll see that can easily incorporate these Japanese noodles into your healthy diet. Plus, you’ll learn how to eat soba at a Japanese restaurant like you actually know what you’re doing.
Why are soba noodles healthier than wheat pasta?
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour. But don’t be fooled by the name.
Buckwheat isn’t a grain…
which means buckwheat isn’t wheat either.
The edible portion is actually a fruit seed from a plant that’s related to rhubarb.
It’s a superfood, high in essential nutrients, protein, and fiber.
Buckwheat also contains more minerals and antioxidants than most grains.
Soba is lighter on carbs and has more fiber than most traditional pastas and noodles.
One cup of soba noodles has approximately 24 grams of carbs. To compare, one cup of refined wheat pasta has about 43 grams of carbs.
Are soba noodles gluten-free?
Having “wheat” in name buckwheat confused me at first.
I hope I can make this part clear, especially for people who have Celiac’s Disease or a sensitivity to gluten.
Buckwheat is gluten-free, on its own.
But please be aware that most packaged soba noodles also contain at least some percentage of wheat flour.
If this is a concern for you, I go into more detail about soba noodles with no added wheat flour below.
Note of caution: the buckwheat in soba causes an allergic reaction in some people.
100% Buckwheat – these Soba Noodles are even Healthier
Making homemade soba noodles by hand with a low ratio of wheat flour is extremely difficult.
That’s why most soba noodles at restaurants in Japan contain at least some wheat flour.
The gluten in wheat flour makes it easier for the dough to hold together.
The soba restaurant where I ate lunch yesterday uses the ratio of 90% buckwheat and 10% wheat flour to make their handmade noodles.
Soba noodles made with 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour are called hachi-wari soba (八割そば). Hachi-wari means 80% in Japanese.
100% buckwheat noodles are called juwari soba (十割そば).
Until recently, I didn’t even know that 100% buckwheat soba existed.
It instantly became my new favorite wheat-free noodle option.
Juwari noodles are more full-flavored, nuttier in taste, and grainy in texture.
I use juwari soba noodles when I cook at home because it’s the healthiest option.
Juwari soba suits my low carb diet. And with no added wheat flour, these noodles are naturally gluten-free.*
If you like the taste and texture of whole wheat pasta, I’m pretty confident you’ll oodle over these noodles too.
Where to buy 100% Buckwheat Soba Noodles
Once I learned the name in kanji, I often notice juwari soba at high-end supermarkets in Tokyo like Seijo Ishii or Queen’s Isetan.
100% buckwheat is a little bit more expensive.
If you live outside of Japan, you may have a hard time finding good quality juwari soba.
I just googled “juwari soba” and a few options that are made in Japan do show up. Lately, I’ve been buying this brand from Hokkaido.
If you love every kind of Japanese noodle, you might be interested in Kokoro Cares “Yui” Care Package, which contains juwari soba, matcha soba, and five-grain udon.
*Note of caution: I’ve yet to find certified gluten-free juwari soba in Japan. The options available may be from a factory where wheat is processed. Please consult your doctor.
What is Zaru Soba ?
This is the simplest dish on the menu at any soba restaurant in Japan.
On a sweltering hot day like today in Tokyo, 34 C ( 93 F), it’s exactly what I’m craving for lunch.
Mori soba is plain noodles served in a basket with a chilled dipping sauce on the side. Add a sprinkling of nori (dried seaweed) on top, then it’s called zaru soba.
Both come with a garnish, usually thinly sliced scallions (negi= spring onions) and wasabi, on a small dish resting above or next to the dipping sauce.
That’s it. Simple is best.
A Very Brief History of Soba in Japan
Juwari soba, that I mentioned above, is considered the most traditional soba noodle.
Over 300 years ago, when soba noodles were made from 100 % buckwheat flour, they were prone to easily breaking apart.
Because of the noodles delicate nature, they were steamed and served in bamboo baskets called take zaru.
The name literally means “Soba served on a basket made of bamboo“.
Nowadays, with the added binding power of wheat flour, soba noodles are boiled.
Still, the tradition of serving the noodles in bamboo baskets has remained, as did the name, zaru soba.
Lucky for the health conscious, gluten-free eaters, 100% buckwheat soba can be made my machine.
And the noodles can be boiled easily in a pot of water without breaking apart.
I originally wrote about eating soba in Japan for NHK World’s “Food Page”.
If you’re interested in learning more in general, you can find that article here.
How to eat Cold Soba –Manners in Japan
I love food that has a step-by-step way to enjoying them fully. I find the process of eating cold soba very Zen, even when slurping.
Here’s how it’s done in Japan. The way of enjoying soba has been refined over the last 300+ years.
1. First, I recommend that you eat one or a few plain noodles to experience the full taste, aroma, and texture of the soba on its own without the sauce.
2. Next, using chopsticks, you can dip your noodles into the cup of tsuyu sauce. You shouldn’t dip all the noodles into the sauce, which is quite salty, or the tsuyu will overpower the delicate taste of the soba. Just a quick dip – not a dunk – let the sauce drip… then slurp. (See the section below for some tips to learn how to slurp soba like it’s done in Japan.)
Note of caution: Don’t pour the dipping sauce over the top of the noodles like spaghetti. My friend, Luke, learned this lesson the hard way, when he visited Japan. LOL Remember the plate is made of bamboo– there’s holes.
3. At the end of your meal, it’s time for “soba-yu” (literally soba-hot water). It’s the cloudy broth leftover from boiling the noodles. After you’ve finished your noodles, pour enough soba-yu directly into the dipping sauce, adjusting the amount of soba-yu as you prefer. In Japan, it’s polite, and expected that you drink it straight from the cup.
4. Afterwards, let out a loud belch to let the chef know you fully enjoyed your meal.
And yes, I’m joking about #4.
Some Tips: How to Slurp Cold Soba Noodles Properly
In Japan, unlike what your mom or dad probably taught you, it’s polite to slurp your noodles loudly.
This time, it’s no joke.
I’m still a beginner when it comes to slurping soba. Even after 16 years in Japan, I go back to eating my noodles without the sound effects.
The key to slurping, and not getting sauce dribbling down your shirt, is to hold the tsuyu cup right beneath your mouth. Also, picking up smaller amounts of soba from your platter may save yourself from a slurping sauce disaster.
To slurp your noodles without spills, lean forward with your head directly above and mouth close to the bowl of dipping sauce.
According to the author of The Book of Soba, James Udesky, “It starts off with a suck that evolves into a slurp. If they are eaten too quietly, the cook might assume they are not being enjoyed.”
To be honest, I wouldn’t be too worried about making sound effects. You can try slurping for fun. Then, focus on just enjoying your meal.
How to make Zaru Soba (Chilled Soba Noodles)
Zaru Soba (Cold Soba Noodles)
- 1 lb dried soba noodles 450 g
- 1 cup dipping sauce 250 cc
- 1 sheet nori seaweed cut into thin strips
- 2 scallions finely sliced
- 2 tsp wasabi
- 2 tbsp grated daikon radish (optional)
- tsuyu dipping sauce store-bought or homemade
Finely slice scallions. Set aside.
Using kitchen scissors, cut nori seaweed into thin slices.
Cooking Soba Noodles
Bring 2 quarts (1.6 liters) of water to rolling boil in a large pot for 1/4 pound (115 g) of noodles. *You may want to use more than one pot. Otherwise, you can cook the noodles in batches.
Add the noodles and stir gently back and forth with cooking chopsticks or a large spoon.
When the boiling water starts to foam over, add 1/2 cup (120 cc) of cold water and lower the heat slightly. Repeat one or two more times.
When the water comes to a boil a second time, test the noodles. If they are done, turn off the heat and remove from stove.
From time to time, remove a noodle from the pot and give it a taste test. Cold soba noodles are served al dente.
When the noodles are ready, pour them into a strainer above another pot to save the broth. *Soba-yu contains proteins and minerals.
Put the noodles in a large bowl of ice water to firm them up. (optional)
Once the noodles have cooled off a bit, stir briskly for 5-10 seconds to wash off the starch. Rinse well.
Drain well using a strainer.
Serving Cold Soba
Place the noodles on plates or in traditional zaru baskets.
Garnish with strips of nori. Sprinkle on top, in the center.
Serve dipping sauce in individual cups.
Each person adds the garnishes (wasabi, scallions, and grated daikon) to according to their personal preferences. I go easy on the scallions.
Once you have finished eating your noodles, reheat the cooking water (soba-yu).
Top off your remaining dipping sauce with soba-yu, according to taste. I prefer adding less soba-yu at first.
Also refer to the cooking instructions on the package. Cooking time varies based on the thickness of the noodles.
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The lesson I learned …
I’ve found that every recipe for my blog teaches me a new lesson.
Every creation is the result of a process of trial and error, a string of successes and flops.
I was just about to start a new teaching job.
On top of that, I was moving to a new apartment close to school.
And we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
I intentionally choose to do a simple recipe in anticipation of not having time.
It still didn’t get done.
I’m sharing this light and refreshing “summer recipe”
Looking back at August now, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
I ended up being behind
and that’s ok.
As long as you enjoy the journey, it’s ok if it takes some extra time to reach the finish line.
I could have sacrificed something to get ahead.
All things happen when it’s time.
And it was time for me to be behind,
going through the s