As bitter cold sets in, filling comfort food will likely be on the menu for much of the country. And while many will undoubtedly opt to slurp large bowls of piping hot ramen noodles dancing in various meat and vegetable-based broths, fewer will likely try out the noodle that we like to call Japan’s most underrated: soba. Hear us out for a minute while we tell you why you should consider skipping the former and springing for the latter.
Don’t get us wrong, we love ourselves a good bowl of ramen. It’s accessible, cheap and tasty. People line up at the newest slurp shops in cities like New York and Los Angeles, eager to wait — sometimes up to several hours — for the chance to sample from a seemingly endless variety of inventive combinations mixed together in hearty broths. But ramen has its shortcomings. Despite all the press, it’s not particularly a “health food” — an all-encompassing term most commonly thrown around during the current month of January. Ramen is typically very caloric and is high in salt. And while there are entire websites dedicated to rating instant ramen, the versions most commonly available to make at home are often full of concentrated colors and flavors, not to mention in saturated fats and sodium.
Enter soba. Handmade from buckwheat (soba is, after all, the Japanese word for buckwheat), the noodle can perhaps be thought of as a cousin of ramen’s. On second thought, maybe it’s a cousin twice or thrice removed. It’s healthy, light and refreshing — all traits that cannot exactly describe its mischievous relative. There are both hot and cold preparations for soba, making it a rare year-round comfort food. While hot soups (in which the noodles are submerged in a subtly-flavored, fish-based broth) might entice more winter eaters, it’s the simple, cold preparation that is the most common way of enjoying soba, served alongside a soy-based dipping sauce. Toss on a wide range of toppings to complement the noodles’ wholesome, somewhat nutty flavor. Less traditional uses include mixing the diverse noodles into salads and stir-fries. There’s quite a bit of depth to soba’s taste, a far cry from the mostly bland ramen noodle, which is not meant to be consumed on its own. Even store-bought dried soba noodles — perfect for a quick meal at home — pack in a good amount of natural flavor.
Finally, a word about nutrition. Soba contains all eight essential amino acids — vital in child development, growth and stamina — including lysine, which is lacking in wheat. It’s high in several vitamins, particularly those associated with skin improvement and anti-aging. There’s the belief that it has properties traceable to cancer, liver disease and dementia prevention. You get the idea.
And where to find it in New York City…
I’ve been to Soba-ya around 75 times since stumbling upon it a few years back. From the welcoming smell of fresh buckwheat to the hourly demonstrations of noodle-making in the front, the East Village favorite really knows what it’s doing. Try out the cold soba noodles with uni and mountain yam. You’ll be hooked.
Video: Soba Master Tatsuru Rai Demonstrates His Craft At MAD Symposium
Try out these soba noodle recipes on Food Republic: