In Japan, cold noodle dishes are very popular during the hot summer months. The noodles are light, yet filling enough to keep up your energy even through the heat, and the cool dipping sauce is a perfect way to cool down. Zaru soba (ざるそば) and zaru udon (ざるうどん) are popular cold noodle dishes served in Japan. The name comes from the way that the dish is plated: a zaru is a bamboo draining basket, similar to a sieve or colander. Well-designed zaru can even be used as serving plates. Zaru soba and zaru udon are typically served with finely, thinly sliced nori on top, and scallions and sometimes with daikon oroshi, grated Japanese radish, on the side.
Soba noodles are thin Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour. They have a distinctive nutty flavor. Most brands add some wheat flour to the noodles in order to help them bind together. As they contain less wheat than most noodles, they’re good for those who are slightly sensitive to gluten. (There is also a completely gluten-free noodle solution called shirataki, talked about in our previous blog here.) There are records of buckwheat being brought from China at the end of the Jomon period, around 300 BCE. Buckwheat gained popularity during the Nara period (710 to 794) when it started being grown in Japan in order to help fight the famine of the time. It became even more popular around the Second World War when, as was mentioned in our previous curry rice blog, beri-beri—a vitamin deficiency disease caused by lack in vitamin B1 in a diet—began to show itself in Japan. Because buckwheat is high in many of the B vitamins, it was a great help to combat the disease.
Udon noodles are thick, round flour noodles. The actual noodles have a neutral flavor, meaning it’s very easy to taste any soups you use. They’re made by mixing water with salt and flour then kneading and stretching the dough, then finally cutting the dough into strips with a large knife. A Buddhist priest first brought a version of udon to Japan from China around the beginning of the 9th century. The Sanuki region of Japan claims to have been the first to produce the noodle in Japan, which is why you can still find “Sanuki Udon” today.
Zaru soba and zaru udon are both very easy to make dishes. At Asahi you can buy fresh (frozen) or dried soba or udon noodles. Dried and fresh noodles have generally the same flavor; the texture of the dried noodles is chewier than the fresh noodles but they store for a longer time. You can also buy a pre-made dipping sauce, sold both straight and concentrated. Cook the noodles as instructed without seasoning the water with salt. After cooking the noodles, they then need to be cooled down. Drain the noodles with a colander then run cool water over them to prevent further cooking and to cool them down. This step will also wash any residue left over from the cooking process off of your noodles. To add some color to your plate, you can add chasoba (茶そば), which are soba noodles with green tea mixed in.
It’s also possible to make your own dipping sauce at home. The dipping sauce, or tsuyu (つゆ) is similar to most Japanese sauces as it has a base of soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), cooking sake, and dashi. To make about 2 cups of the dipping sauce you need 1 cup soy sauce, 1 cup and 2 tablespoons mirin, a half cup of cooking sake, and either a packet of instant dashi or 1 cup katsuobushi fish flakes and a 2X2 inch piece of konbu, or kelp in English. Put the sake in a sauce pan and bring it to a boil over medium heat; after letting the alcohol cook off for a few seconds add the mirin and soy sauce, then add either the dashi packet or the konbu and katsuobushi. Bring it back to a boil, then let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes. If you used the instant dashi, the sauce is ready to be cooled down in the refrigerator to eat with your meal; if you went with the konbu and katsuobushi method, all you need to do is strain your mixture through a fine sieve before you can cool it down.
Everything needed to make zaru soba or udon from scratch or pre-made ingredients, including the zaru plate itself, can be purchased at Asahi Imports. Try making some zaru soba at home to cool off in the heat. Are there any other Japanese foods that you’re planning on eating before summer winds down?