When it comes to cooling summer food, Japanese cuisine has a whole lot to offer. One of the simplest, and tastiest, cooling summer dishes is one called zaru soba. Zaru soba is a noodle dish that is eaten chilled, either on its own, or accompanied by deep-fried tempura. It is most often served over a special type of plate with a bamboo strainer, called zaru, hence its name. Soba noodles are slightly different as well, either being made completely, or mostly with buckwheat flour. This means the noodles are slightly stiffer and more coarse in texture than ones made purely from wheat flour. However, the presence of buckwheat gives the noodles a distinct but pleasant fragrance.
While zaru soba is a zip to prepare, there are a couple of traditions that surround its consumption. One of those is the use of the zaru plate, which helps to keep the cooled noodles from getting soggy. The other is the use of properly prepared dipping sauce, called soba tsuyu. Soba tsuyu can be purchased, ready to use in bottles, or prepared from scratch rather simply. The key is that soba tsuyu needs to be chilled and presented in an appropriately sized cup. Any cup that is large enough to handle a chopstick full of noodles can suffice, but specifically made and sized soba dipping cups are popular throughout Japan. When zaru soba is served, each person is outfitted with their own plate of noodles, and personal dipping cup. Condiments, such as sliced scallion, grated daikon, wasabi, or karashi mustard can be added to the dipping sauce if desired. To eat, simply dip the noodles in the sauce for a short time (you don’t want them to become soggy), and enjoy.
To make your own zaru soba at home, check out the following recipe, borrowed from our friends over at Just One Cookbook.
14 oz dried soba noodles. Soba noodles often come in pre-divided serving-sized bundles, so four bundles will do perfectly.
1 part mentsuyu/soba tsuyu
1 large bowl of ice water
2 green scallions, thinly sliced
Shredded kizami nori
Finely sliced ohba (optional)
Wasabi (also optional)
To make mentsuyu from scratch:
¼ cup ryorishu/sake
½ cup mirin
½ cup soy sauce
1 piece dried kombu, approximately 1” square
1 cup packed down katsuobushi bonito flakes
For the sauce (this recipe makes 1 cup concentrated mentsuyu):
First bring ryorishu/ sake to a boil in a medium sized saucepan. Allow it to boil for a minute or so, so that the alcohol has a chance to evaporate out.
Add ½ cup soy sauce and ½ cup mirin.
Add 1” square kombu piece and 1 cup katsuobushi bonito flakes.
Bring the mixture to a boil and allow to simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.
Allow it to cool completely and then pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove the katsuobushi flakes and kombu piece. The resulting sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one month.
For the noodles:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. DO NOT add salt! The dipping sauce for zaru soba is already very salty, and if you salt the noodles, you will make the dish inedible to most people.
Once the water is boiling, add the bundles of soba noodles. Use a long pair of cooking chopsticks to separate the noodles from their bundles, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
Once the noodles have reached their desired tenderness (something resembling al dente with wheat pasta), drain them into a colander.
Rinse the noodles thoroughly with cold water to lower the temperature and remove the starch. This is an important step! Without rinsing, your noodles will stick to themselves and become difficult to eat.
Transfer the rinsed noodles to the bowl of ice water and allow them to become cold before serving.
To serve, either place the noodles on a zaru plate, or unroll a sushi mat over a regular plate and place the noodles on top so that the excess water can drain.
For the sauce, you will want to dilute concentrated sauce in a 3:1 ratio with ice water.
Pour the diluted sauce into a dipping cup, with any garnishes on a separate, small plate.
To eat, garnish your noodles, dip them, and enjoy!