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Cooking from the World Pantry: Soba Noodles

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Soba Noodle Salad
Photo by: Maria Zizka

Around this time last year, I was traveling in Japan and feeling as though I couldn’t possibly be any more fortunate. It was my first time visiting the Land of the Rising Sun and every single detail—from the pristine cleanliness of the public restrooms to the uplifting jingle that played when the subway doors opened—enthralled me. Unsurprisingly, the food was the star of the show.

One day Graham and I were walking on a quiet side street in Kyoto and we came across what I later learned was the oldest soba restaurant in town. Soba noodles, traditionally made from freshly milled buckwheat flour and water, had been served from this spot for more than five hundred years. We stepped inside, removed our shoes, and sat cross-legged on thin, square cushions placed directly on the tatami mat-covered floor. I had done some research on dining etiquette, so I knew a few basic table manners. It is correct to use both hands to pick up a bowl of broth. Also, a person should politely refill her dining companion’s cup of tea rather than her own. However, I readily admit there were a few pointers I should have studied more closely.

Toward the end of our meal, the server brought a teapot to our table. Inside the teapot was what looked like hot, cloudy water. The only thing I knew for sure was that it wasn’t tea. Or at least it wasn’t green tea. I vaguely remembered reading something about eating soba noodles and something about drinking the water that the noodles were cooked in. Proudly, I suggested to Graham that we drink the water in the teapot. So we emptied our tea cups and filled them with the cloudy liquid. It was only okay, mild-flavored and in desperate need of salt, but we sipped anyhow. Of course, we were doing it completely wrong. It still embarrasses me to no end to think of those servers witnessing our misstep. Days later I read in a guidebook: “Sobayu, the water soba noodles were cooked in, is meant to be poured into your remaining dipping sauce.” Oops.

Throughout Japan you’ll find soba noodles served two ways: boiled and then chilled, with a flavorful sauce on the side, or served hot in a bowl of dashi-based broth. Either way, soba is a very affordable meal, costing somewhere between ¥500 and ¥1000 (roughly $5 to $10). Many people would argue that the best way to enjoy soba noodles is to eat them cold because allowing them to soak in hot broth alters their unique texture.

It’s simple to cook soba noodles at home. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add dried soba noodles, and cook for approximately seven minutes, or as long as the instructions on the package suggest. Drain, then rinse the cooked noodles under cold water until completely chilled. You can keep them in your refrigerator for several days. That way, a refreshing lunch or light dinner is only ever a few minutes away.

Soba Noodle Salad with Ginger-Soy Dressing

Although tossing cooked soba noodles with dressing and serving as a salad isn’t traditional, it is a delicious dish that I crave regularly in the heat of summer. Feel free to switch up the vegetables depending on the season and your preferences. Snap peas, broccoli florets, and edamame would all make terrific additions and tofu could stand in for the shrimp.

Serves 4

8 ounces dried soba noodles
10 ounces shrimp (about 15 large), peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons neutral-flavored oil, such as grapeseed or canola
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely grated
½ teaspoon sriracha (optional)
Pinch of brown sugar
½ large red bell pepper, seeded and stemmed, thinly sliced
4 radishes, thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled and shaved into ribbons using a vegetable peeler
1 small or ¼ large cucumber, sliced into matchsticks
2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced
½ cup cilantro
¼ small red cabbage, very thinly sliced

To cook the noodles and shrimp, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles, stir, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and continue cooking for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the shrimp are cooked through. Drain, then rinse under cold water. Place in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the dressing. (Noodles and shrimp can be made ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)

In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, neutral-flavored oil, ginger, sriracha, and brown sugar.

In a large bowl, combine the bell pepper, radish, carrot, cucumber, scallions, cilantro, cabbage, and the cooked noodles and shrimp. Pour in the dressing and toss well to coat. Serve chilled.

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