What is Soba? Japan’s Yummy Traditional Noodle Dish

What if I told you there is a noodle dish in Japan that is probably one of the healthiest, but more unknown noodle dishes globally?

Unless you’re in Japan, that is.

Soba noodles are all over the place here. Some soba specific shops, big chain restaurants with soba on the vast menu… and some boutique, high-end “kaiseki” traditional Japanese restaurants.

Look here for our recommendations on the best soba restaurants in Tokyo.

There’s a chain of fast-food soba shops where it can cost as little as ¥380 for a meal set — and it’s ready within minutes of ordering!

In Japan, soba noodles are served either chilled with a dipping sauce or in a hot dashi broth as a noodle soup, and both dishes are served all year round.” (justonecookbook.com)

Want to enjoy a class teaching how to make soba noodles from scratch in Tokyo? If you’re in the Asakusa area, you’re in luck. There’s an affordable class with a knowledgable instructor just waiting to show you how.

What are Soba Noodles?

Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat. So it’s pretty easy to guess what soba noodles are, right?

But the soba noodle dish, buckwheat noodles, takes on a new life in Japan. The variety and flavor and styles of soba noodles are impressive.

Ideally, the noodles will contain around 7080 percent buckwheat (this is the nihachi-style).” (bonappetit.com)

And the craftsmanship is unbelievable. It’s so hard to put this into words… so I won’t even try.

Watch this video of a master of his craft — as he makes soba noodles from scratch. Super impressive to watch.

Soba is eaten either hot in a soup, or cold with a dipping sauce. This is where the massive variety comes in. But before we dive into some types of soba dishes, let’s talk about sobayu real quick.

Sobayu is the hot water left over after boiling soba noodles. It has a milky, clear appearance and is poured into leftover dipping sauce to create an end of meal hot drink.

It’s an enjoyable experience because, toward the end of your meal, the soba restaurant will bring a little teapot of sobayu that you can add to the leftover dipping sauce to control the flavor.

Hot Soba Noodles

Hot soba is bowls of soup with soba noodles added in — similar to ramen, but with a thin, watery, but flavorful, base called tsuyu — which is made from sake, mirin, soy sauce, kombu, and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and sometimes sesame oil. 

Remember, tsuyu is the broth. I’m going to use this word in the descriptions of the dishes below.

Kake Soba (掛け蕎麦)

Hot soba in tsuyu topped with sliced scallion and a slice of kamaboko (fish cake).

Kitsune Soba (きつね蕎麦)

Kitsune means fox in Japanese. Yep, this is “fox soba.”

It is topped with aburaage, which is deep-fried tofu. This is one of my wife’s favorites.

Kitsune soba is commonly found in convenience stores and has instant versions available.

Tanuki Soba (たぬき蕎麦)

Tanuki soba is hot tsuyu with soba noodles and fried bits of tempura batter called tenkasu (or sometimes referred to as agedama).

This is my favorite bowl of hot soba noodles. The crunchy fried tempura batter adds a nice flavor to the soup, and if eaten quickly enough, it is crunchy.

Tempura Soba (天麩羅蕎麦)

This one is much easier.

This dish is soba noodles with tempura, usually shrimp, sometimes vegetables, or often kakiage — as a topping.

I say topping, but the restaurant will often give you the tempura on the side, and you can choose to place it on top of the noodles if you want.

You can picture fried shrimp or vegetables on top of a bowl of soup with soba noodles underneath.

How about a video showing off tempura soba?

Tororo Soba (とろろ蕎麦)

This is also known as yamakake soba, topped with the puree of yamaimo — a starchy, soft yam that, when pureed, becomes a thick paste (yamaimo means mountain yam in Japanese).

This thick paste is usually served on the side in a bowl where you’ll pour it into your hot soba noodles when ready.

Nameko Soba (なめこ蕎麦)

This one may be an acquired taste. It’s not so much the taste; it’s delicious. It’s the texture.

It is topped with the slimy nameko mushroom.

It’s quite good. If you can get past the slimy texture, the flavor is fantastic.

Sansai Soba (山菜)

This is soba noodles served over a bed of wild mountain vegetables such as mountain asparagus (yama udo), butterbur (fuki), bamboo shoots (takenoko), and ostrich fern (kogomi) — among others. It’s seasonal and usually found in menus during the spring.

Tsukimi Soba (月見蕎麦)

This is a fun dish because it translates into “moon-viewing soba.” It has a raw egg carefully laid on top — resembling the moon. It is delicious too if you can stomach raw egg (though, it does cook somewhat on the hot soup).

Cold Soba Noodles

Cold soba noodles are boiled then chilled. They’re arranged carefully on a plate or a small bamboo mat. Cold soba noodles are dipped in tsuyu before being eaten.

Mori Soba (盛り蕎麦)

Plain chilled soba noodles. This is the most common cold soba dish. You should find it in most soba shops and traditional Japanese food restaurants.

However, mori soba is often confused with the next type… simply because of seaweed.

Zaru Soba (笊蕎麦)

This is mori soba topped with shredded nori seaweed on top.

Yes… there is a whole new name for this dish simply because there is some shredded seaweed on top.

Hiyashi soba (冷やし蕎麦)

This cold soba has various toppings. It also is one where you will pour the tsuyu over the soba rather than dip it before eating.

Toppings may include:

  • Tororo: puree of yamaimo
  • Oroshi: grated daikon radish
  • Natto: fermented soybeans
  • Okura: fresh sliced okra

Traditional Soba Holiday

Soba noodles are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve.

Please don’t be mistaken, that is not the only day they’re eaten. It’s merely a day where there is a unique tradition for eating soba noodles.

This traditional soba is called toshikoshi-soba — which means year-passing soba.

It’s eaten as the last food of the “old year” to rid the family of any bad luck and prepare for the upcoming year.

Asian noodles are a traditional New Years Day dish, with signifying longevity, good luck, and starting the year with a clean slate.” (foodiecrush.com)

Why is some soba green?

Green soba is essentially the same as the usual soba but has had green tea (or matcha) added — giving it that green color.

Can soba noodles be frozen?

Raw soba noodles can be frozen, yes. Do this to keep them longer — up to a few months.

Defrost them slowly, so they don’t become too moist — maybe defrost inside the fridge.

Can you microwave soba noodles?

You can.

However, maybe a better way would be to microwave the water to bring it to a boil and then add the noodles.

After adding the noodles, microwave in short bursts — perhaps 30 seconds — to prevent messing up the soba noodles.

Are soba noodles healthy/vegan/low carb?

Soba noodles aren’t precisely a health food, but buckwheat has some benefits.

It has about half the calories of standard flour. And also, buckwheat is gluten-free.

However, do take note that not all soba noodles are 100% percent gluten-free.” (justonecookbook.com)