Hearty, flavorful soba noodles are a staple of Japanese cooking. Made from buckwheat, the seed of a flowering plant closely related to rhubarb and sorrel, these noodles boast an earthy taste and a slightly chewy texture.
Soba noodles can be slurped up along with hot broth, but they also are often enjoyed in a spare bamboo-tray presentation featuring twists of chilled noodles; a dipping sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar; a dab of wasabi on the side; and shredded toasted nori (dried seaweed). The simple dish, called zaru soba, is a beautiful way to showcase the noodles’ earthy, nutty-sweet flavor and resilient chew.
There are also nontraditional recipes that take the concept and turn it into a more casual one-bowl noodle salad fleshed out with crisp vegetables and a flavorful dressing in place of the dipping sauce. The dish would be just right to tote to work for lunch or pair with salmon or tofu (and perhaps a glass of sake) as a light, refreshing dinner.
There are a couple of types of soba noodles that are easy to find in the United States. Pure buckwheat soba has a deep chestnut color, a pronounced (but pleasant) bitterness, and a coarse texture. Because buckwheat lacks gluten, these noodles can be quite fragile when dry and are less springy when boiled. The other commonly available type replaces some of the buckwheat flour with wheat flour. In taste tests, we preferred this type for its milder taste and, because of the gluten contributed by the wheat, its more resilient texture.
To cook the soba, I brought a large pot of unsalted water to a boil. Salt is typically not added to the cooking water for soba because manufacturers sometimes add salt to the noodles and because the soba is usually paired with a highly seasoned dressing or sauce.
Once the water was boiling, I added 8 ounces of soba noodles and gave them a quick stir to ensure that they were submerged and to prevent sticking. Because soba varies so much from brand to brand, recommended boiling times range from 3 to 10 minutes. Ultimately, I found that it was best to follow the timing on the individual packages. Because soba noodles are more delicate than the typical wheat pasta, it was important to check them early and often during cooking.
Once they were tender but still retained their chew, I drained the noodles in a colander and promptly ran them under cold water until they felt slick. Rinsing is essential to stop further cooking and cool the noodles; it also removes sticky surface starch, helping the noodles remain distinct and separate.
With my soba ready to go, I whisked together a quick dressing inspired by the zaru soba dipping sauce. To soy sauce and salty-sweet mirin (see “Mirin”), I added nutty toasted sesame oil, sesame seeds, grated fresh ginger for zing, and red pepper flakes for a bit of heat.
When I tossed this mixture with the chilled soba, the soy dominated, and the thin dressing slid right off the noodles. So for my next batch, I reached for white miso thinned with a little water in place of the soy sauce. The thick, mildly sweet, umami-rich miso made for a velvety dressing that clung lightly to the soba and didn’t obscure its subtleties. Next, I sliced up a medley of raw vegetables: clean, cool cucumber; peppery red radishes; scallions; and snow peas.
To help keep the vegetables from collecting at the bottom of the bowl, I cut them into shapes and sizes that would get entwined in the noodles (see “Vegetable Prep School”). I noticed that the cucumbers shed a bit of water when I tossed them with the dressed noodles, so I decreased the water in the dressing by 1 tablespoon.
Finally, in a nod to how cold soba noodles are traditionally enjoyed, I added strips of toasted nori to my salad. Their understated briny taste was the perfect finishing touch to the earthy, perfectly cooked noodles; sweet-savory dressing; and cool, crunchy vegetables.