I started cooking soba noodles long before I experienced the real deal. (I say this with a pinch of salt — or soy? — because I am not a food purist. I don’t believe there’s an ultimate way to cook anything.)
But I discovered this only recently, when reminding myself of a gastronomic tour of Tokyo I went on over a decade ago and realizing that I had visited Kanda Yabu Soba, a venerated soba restaurant, after having cooked those noodles many times before. I was under the impression that this visit was what started this love affair. Apparently not, and in a way, this is probably for the best, as I would probably not have dared to mess with the noodles otherwise.
There are several ways the Japanese serve and cook soba, a nutty-tasting, brilliantly slurpable noodle made of buckwheat flour. But to me, none of them feel as pure as the simplest version, where the noodles are served cold on a sievelike bamboo tray called zaru, with only a simple dipping sauce of dashi, soy and mirin alongside. The noodles are picked up with chopsticks, dipped in the sauce and then eaten, solemnly, with a kind of reverence to their purity.
At Kanda Yabu Soba, I was the only foreigner, sitting in what looked like a sea of Japanese businessmen on their lunch breaks, all quietly immersed in what felt like a semireligious ceremony. I was seduced, so I went back the next day, again joining the long lunch line and, again, ordering my cold soba, with a serving of tempura shrimp.
The allure of the freshly made and cut noodles lies in their light, “bouncy” texture, better maintained cold than in a hot broth, which tends to make them softer, and achieved by the blending of buckwheat and wheat flour. Buckwheat flour on its own is expensive, and the noodles it produces tend to be brittle. When anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent wheat flour is added, the result is a little more tender and chewy, but not as glutinous and stretchy as noodles made from 100 percent wheat flour. Commercial dried soba noodles manage to retain some of that texture and much of the flavor, as long as they are not overcooked. This is why it is important to run them under cold water as soon as they’re al dente.
An ingredient with an innate gift for playing well with others.
Once cooked and refreshed, your soba noodles can go into a cold broth, as they do in this recipe. Here they are served with grilled corn, shiitake and freshly grated tomato, for a good balance of sweetness, acidity and umami.
If you want to save yourself from making the flavored broth, though, you can simply season your noodles with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil and a sprinkle of nori strips. This wonderful minimalism can then be expanded by adding mirin, for example, grated ginger, sliced or grated radish and freshly cut chopped herbs, such as cilantro, shiso, mint or basil.
Especially around the summer months, I love moving into refreshing salads. A favorite I return to all the time is a soba-and-avocado salad with cardamom, lime and pistachios. It’s a 15-minute job with a gratifying meal at the end. A similar idea, with just a little more work, is the soba-noodle salad with mango and eggplant from my book “Plenty.” Once you’ve diced the mango and cooked the eggplant, you can put it together pretty quickly and, once again, create a light meal with heaps of soba nuttiness and sweet and savory flavors. It remains one of my most cooked dishes.
These somewhat magical noodles have an innate generosity: They can be a base for a whole range of light salads, soups and quick meals, based on the noodles themselves, with a bunch of easy-to-cook additions or simple condiments. Think of the pure noodles I had in the zaru tray, with all their textural glory, and add whatever you feel like at the moment.
It is no wonder, really, that soba noodles have become a symbol of kinship in Japan, where it is traditional to give soba to a new neighbor. As the word “soba” also means “close to,” it can be seen as hope for a good experience residing side by side, which I can see only as the real-world equivalent to what happens in a well-balanced bowl of soba noodles.