Eating in Japan – Part 2: Soba and Udon Noodles
In my previous post, I talked about the prevalence of rice and fish in Japanese food, an aspect which did not come as much of a surprise to me and which dominates food culture here. However, since arriving in Japan, the food group which I have personally eaten most and loved most is noodles.
With a few notable exceptions, noodles in Japan are served in large deep bowls of hot broth, often with toppings or accompaniments. When I visited Japan as a tourist last year in the heat and incredible humidity of summer, leaning over a steaming bowl of soup in a crowded restaurant did not seem like an appealing way to eat. However, since the temperature has dropped a little, and I’ve left the bustle of Tokyo behind, noodles have become my favourite thing to eat. They are comforting, nourishing and flavoursome, and it rarely costs more than a fiver for a (huge) full meal. There a few different types, so in the next few posts I’ll try to give you a flavour of my favourite ones.
During my first visit to Japan, we discovered a great little soba cafe near to Logan’s workplace which was perfect for our lunchtime meet-ups (before I had a job!). It had a simple menu, which we could just about read, and it played music-box versions of Studio Ghibli soundtracks, which was delightful. This was where I first tried soba noodles, a type of medium thickness noodles made from buckwheat. You can eat soba hot or cold, which makes them perfect for summer. My favourite order is cold soba noodles with hot duck soup. The noodles are served on a sort of bamboo or plastic mesh over a large plate, which allows any moisture to drain off the noodles, and stops them sticking to the plate. The soup is served in a small dish, more like a large mug, often with a lid. There is usually also a dish of wasabi and sliced spring onions. You add the seasonings to the soup and then pick up the noodles with chopsticks, dip them in the soup and then eat them. I think it’s much easier to eat cold noodles than hot, because there’s no danger of flicking hot soup into your eyes as you take time to perfect your noodle-eating technique!
Soba noodles served this way are delicious with just the soup, and you get a pretty generous portion, but if you want to, you can order tempura on the side. Tempura is crispy golden battered things, usually fish or vegetables, and it’s served with its own dipping sauce. I find it pretty hard to resist ordering one or two pieces of tempura pumpkin; the pumpkin goes so soft and slightly sweet compared to the crispy batter.
Udon noodles are usually served in the same restaurants that serve soba. (Point to mention: restaurants in Japan are generally distinguished by type of food rather than country or whatever – so instead of an Indian, an Italian and a pub, there’ll be a ramen place, a sushi place and a soba/udon place) Udon noodles are really thick, white noodles, served hot or cold, a lot like soba. In general, I have eaten soba noodles cold and udon hot. I found udon really difficult to eat at first, because they are thick and served in a piping hot soup, which makes them difficult to slurp properly. I think I’m getting the hang of it now though.
Udon can be served or dipped into the same sorts of soup or broth as soba noodles, and are equally served with tempura on the side. In addition to these styles, you can also find curry udon, where the noodles are served in a big bowl of curry sauce, with pieces of onion, beef and carrot. Curry udon is absolutely scrumptious. The curry is only a little bit spicy, dark in colour and about as thick as the average Indian curry in the UK. The taste is rich and warming. It’s a real comforting dish for winter. Apparently, udon is also considered to have a number of health benefits, not to mention being an ideal cure for a hangover. If you don’t fancy curry, the main alternative broth is dashi-based, and may contain all sorts of things: tofu, yuba, an egg (most likely served raw to poach in the hot broth), wakame (thick, dark green seaweed), prawns, and so on.
Next post: Ramen!