Japanese Buckwheat Noodles

The word soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat and also the slender noodles made from buckwheat flour (sobako). The noodles often include binders such as wheat flour or Japanese yam. They have an earthy, yet refined flavor. Soba noodles are enjoyed all year long, in hot soup during cold months, and chilled, accompanied by dipping sauce, in the warm months. They are popular with everyone, not least of all business people who need to grab a quick and nutritious lunch-on-the-go. Soba is low in calories, oil-free and high in many nutrients. Nowadays, when we mention soba, everyone thinks of these slender, heartily flavored noodles—but wouldn’t you be surprised to know that, while buckwheat itself has been around for thousands of years, the noodle form has only been around for only a fraction of that time? Let’s take a look back at the stages of soba’s development within Japanese cuisine.

History of Soba

According to the leading theory, DNA analysis reveals that the origin of the buckwheat plant was somewhere between what is now the Yunnan province in China and the Himalayas. The beginning of the cultivation of buckwheat in Japan is thought to date back to the prehistoric Jomon period. About 9,000 years ago, buckwheat flower pollen was discovered in some ancient ruins in Shikoku’s Kochi prefecture, and in Saitama prefecture, in the central-west section of the main island, Honshu, buckwheat seed fossils dating back about 3,000 years were uncovered.

Through the end of the Heian period, 794—1185, before milling methods were established, it’s thought that during times of famine, the hulled buckwheat seeds were cooked in water to a mash or porridge-like consistency, and eaten to abate hunger. Tasty?  Not particularly, but growling bellies were eased of their hunger pangs.

This view of soba as “emergency food” changed radically in the Kamakura period (1185—1333), after the millstone was introduced from China. Large quantities of sobako and other flour, were now able to be produced, and these new foodstuffs were soon widespread throughout the country. According to literature from this period and the succeeding Muromachi period (1337—1573), this is when soba consumption greatly increased. Sobako was mixed with warm water and kneaded into dough called sobagaki, which was then worked into small round cakes, mochi-like in appearance, and cooked in water, similar to dumplings. Sobagaki could also be flattened and boiled, dipped in miso or soy sauce flavored sauce and eaten; it could be thinly stretched, lightly toasted, then rounded around small balls of sweet red bean paste and put onto skewers. These were only some of the variations of the sobako theme!

Soba Noodles

Soba in noodle form made its first appearance in the 16th century, about 450 years ago. It was called sobakiri, which was made from buckwheat seeds ground into flour and mixed with water to form dough, then thinly rolled out and cut into long, slender shapes. These noodles were used at Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, etc. at times of celebration and other special festivities as symbols of good luck. During the Edo period (1603—1868), wheat flour was added as a binder. The gluten from the wheat flour not only made soba noodles easier to handle, but gave the soba a more refined flavor and texture. These noodles, new on Japan’s food stage, could be enjoyed hot or cold, as is, or with the addition of condiments. This, along with soba’s quick, simple and inexpensive style resulted in soba’s burgeoning popularity throughout the city of Edo’s general populace, and soon there was a soba establishment (sobaya) on practically every corner, kind of like the Starbucks of the Edo period, the very first of which hung out its shingle in 1789. Sobaya, as well as street vendors who wielded portable stalls, stayed open after other eating establishments closed for the night, quickly becoming great late-night places to grab a bite. Alcohol was often served as well. Many old sobaya are still in business today, a boon for lovers of soba who seek out traditional shops.

As soba’s popularity grew, it was used to mark significant events in people’s lives, and many of these customs continue to present day; hikkoshi soba is soba given to new neighbors after you first move in, and toshikoshi soba is the soba eaten on New Year’s eve to ensure long life and good health. Soba also became a frequent topic of rakugo, a popular form of verbal entertainment, plays and novels. The soba being referred to was always sobakiri, or the noodle form.

The reason that soba noodles were first seen in the city of Edo, (old Tokyo) and many Tokyo-ites have a strong affinity for them as opposed to other noodles, may be due to the following: the city of Edo was the headquarters of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Tokugawa shogun of the Edo period. It was during the Tokugawa reign that Japan enjoyed economic growth and political stability, allowing for commercial growth, and large cities, like Edo had a more affluent population as compared to rural areas. Soba had an aura about it of sophistication. Its popularity soon spread unequivocally to all reaches of Japan, but for Tokyo-ites especially, it still seems to be the “go-to” noodle. This sense of urban refinement or sophistication still clings to soba, and the word “iki”, which may be translated as “chic” or “smart” with a hint of cosmopolitan flavor is often used when speaking about soba, but not about any other noodle.

Along with the flowering of Edo culture during the mid-19th century, soba underwent a transformation from being considered “emergency food,” to a food in high demand, popularized by the urban taste of Tokyo and enjoyed all over the country for its savoriness in the plainest forms, such as mori soba or zaru soba, as well as dressed up with various accoutrements such as sansai soba and kamonanban.

Nutritional Benefits of Soba

Despite its name, buckwheat is not a grain or a cereal, and not related to wheat. It is a fruit seed, and comes from the family of flowering plants know as the buckwheat family, related to sorrel and rhubarb. It is known to thrive in poor, dry, acidic soils in a cool climate, and can be harvested several times a year. (Soba aficionados, however, say soba noodles made from buckwheat harvested in the fall is superior in flavor and nutrition to the noodles made form summer harvested buckwheat). Even when a poor harvest has been predicted for other crops, the hardiness of buckwheat allows for a good harvest.

The seeds and flour made from them are rich in nutritional value, full of B1 and B2 vitamins, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other minerals. It’s high in fiber and contains the polyphenol rutin, an antioxidant which is said to provide additional benefits for the cardiovascular system. Rutin is water soluble, so drinking the broth that your soba was cooked in is an easy way to get rutin in your diet. Most restaurants will provide this sobayu after your meal if you ask for it.

In steaming broth or served cold, adorned with a simple sprinkle of green onion or crispy tempura; topped with savory chicken, fish or even curry, the ways to enjoy soba are endless! Marukai has packaged soba, frozen soba, ingredients to make homemade soba plus all the fixings for toppings, soup, sauces and bowls and platters for serving. I’m thinking of a nice big plate of chilled soba with tempura on the side for dinner— and I’ll set a place at the table for you! Bring sake.

Most soba noodles sold in stores are made with a blend of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. Thus they are not gluten free; the amount of wheat flour varies by manufacturers. Buckwheat products may also be an allergen. People with buckwheat and/or wheat sensitivities should read all product labels carefully.