Four years ago, we had the pleasure of visiting Japan for the first time. Adam’s band was performing at the Fuji Rock Festival, high in the mountains three hours north of Tokyo. After the last show, the rest of the group went home while the two of us ventured around the country for ten days, falling completely in love with the Japanese people and their inspiring culture. We took bullet trains to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Miyajima, and Hiroshima, traveling across the countryside, spending a few days in each city, visiting pristine gardens and ancient Buddhist temples, while learning where to find the best vegetarian meals and how to properly ask for them. Throughout the day, we often found ourselves saying, “watashi wa bejitarian desu,” hoping they would understand that we were politely communicating, “I am vegetarian.” We snacked on inari (sweet tofu pockets filled with sushi rice), we lived off onigiri with umeboshi (white rice triangles wrapped in seaweed with a sour plum center), we found unique tiny restaurants on hidden side streets serving bowls of hot udon noodles, ramen, and miso soup, we tried a savory pancake called okonomiyaki, sampled multiple flavors of sweet mochi candies, and discovered a delicious noodle dish called zaru soba. This light and refreshing entree quickly became our go-to meal in Japan, and since it is served cold, it makes a perfect summertime dinner that is easy to prepare and fun to eat!
The first time we tried zaru soba was an incredibly embarrassing experience. We were sitting in a small casual restaurant, having ordered it after the friendly waitress who didn’t speak any English kindly pointed out that this was the only “bejitarian” item on the menu. In just a few minutes, she brought out a beautiful presentation of long, slender noodles, garnished with thin strips of dry nori seaweed, resting on a square bamboo tray, known as a zaru. On the side was a small teacup-sized bowl filled with a dark sauce (soba tsayu) that looked similar to soy sauce. She also presented an assortment of small sides: sliced green onions, toasted sesame seeds, white pickled ginger, and wasabi. This being our first time, we thought you were supposed to sprinkle the toppings and pour the sauce on top of the noodles. Well, we were wrong.
As you can see in the revealing photo above from that day, the sauce leaked through the bamboo basket and quickly spread everywhere. Sitting across from us, a table of two local girls no older than nine or ten obviously saw this happen because when we looked up they were covering their mouths uncontrollably giggling at the unexperienced first-timers that just poured sauce all over the table. We jumped up to find towels from the restroom hoping to clean it up before anyone else could see our spill.
What we would learn later is that you do not pour the sauce onto the buckwheat soba noodles. Using your chopsticks, you simply dip the noodles into the sauce. Quite easy and without the mess. Traditionally, each person chooses whichever condiment they would like to add to their dipping sauce: some sliced green onions for a sharp bite, wasabi adds a kick for those who like a little heat, and ginger is always a spicy and delicious addition.
This light Japanese dish is the perfect midweek dinner. The noodles cook in just five minutes and the three-ingredient soba tsayu can be made a week in advance. For those hot summer days when you don’t feel like doing much cooking, this traditional meal comes together in no time at all. With swirls of soba and and a satisfying savory sauce, sipping some smooth sake on the side would certainly be a stimulating supper at sundown. Kanpai, and itadakimasu!
adapted from justhungry.com
makes enough dipping sauce for about 8 people
For the mizu dashi (kombu seaweed broth):
4 cups water
12-inch piece of kombu seaweed
For the kaeshi (soba sauce base):
1/4 cup mirin
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups soy sauce
For assembly and garnish, as desired:
100g buckwheat soba noodles per person
sliced green onions
toasted sesame seeds
sliced nori seaweed
Make the mizu dashi (kombu seaweed broth):
Place the water in a glass container. Break the kombu into large pieces and place in the water. Cover the container and place in the refrigerator overnight to soak. Alternatively, you can let the kombu soak at room temperature for 30 minutes if time is an issue. Either way, once it is done soaking, pour the water and kombu into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove the kombu, and either discard it or use in another recipe. The broth will keep in the fridge, covered, for up to a week.
Make the kaeshi (soba sauce base):
Pour the mirin into a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once simmering, turn heat to low and cook for 1 minute. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Once the sugar is dissolved, add the soy sauce and stir to combine. Bring to a bare simmer, then remove from heat. The kaeshi can be used immediately, or transferred to a glass container for storage in the fridge for up to a week
Make the soba tsuyu (noodle dipping sauce):
In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup of kaeshi sauce and 4 cups of the kombu broth. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and let cool completely. Once cool, the sauce can be used immediately, or transferred to a glass container for storage in the fridge for up to a week.
Cook the soba noodles:
Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil. Once boiling, add 100g of soba noodles per person, stirring gently to combine. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook 5 minutes, or according to package directions. Reserve some cooking water, then drain noodles into a colander. Pour the noodles back into the pot, place the pot in the sink, and start filling it with cold water from the tap. Let the water fill the pot, then with the water still running, gently swish the noodles around underwater with your hands. The water will overflow, but just keep rinsing the noodles and keep them from running over the top of the pot. Keep rinsing the noodles until they are completely cool and the water runs clear.
To serve, grab a small bundle of noodles from the water and place it on a serving basket (with a plate underneath to catch drips) or plate. Make a pile of these bundles on each basket–this technique makes it easier to grab bite-sized portions to dip. Serve at the table with bowls of sliced green onions, wasabi, ginger (fresh grated or picked), toasted sesame seeds, and sliced nori seaweed. Give each person a small bowl with about 1/2 cup of dipping sauce. Everyone can add whichever toppings to the dipping sauce that they like. Grab a bundle of noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the sauce briefly, and enjoy! At the end of the meal, you can add the reserved cooking water (called sobayu) to your bowl of sauce to make soup, if desired. Itadakimasu!
— Konbu seaweed is widely available at grocery stores–especially those that cater to a Japanese clientele–and online. The same is true for mirin (a type of sake used for cooking) and nori seaweed.
— Zaru means “basket” in Japanese, and these noodles are traditionally served on a basket or bamboo tray. There are many types available in stores and online, from simple plastic trays to intricately hand-woven reed baskets.
— Many buckwheat soba noodles are also made with wheat flour, so be sure to check the label if gluten is an issue for you.