Soba for the Soul
s we move into the fall, I reminisce on the comfort of home and family. In this case, a bowl of hot broth and traditional noodle dishes, fragrant with sesame oil and seasonings. Noodles are a big thing for our team. When making it, I actually feel Japanese. It is one of the rare times I embrace my cultural heritage. Even when trying to be on a low-carb diet, the promise of noodles brings even the most remote of team members to the office in a timely manner. Now we share recipes and photos of our culinary creations on Slack, the closest we get to socializing in this unique containment year.
I usually make noodles for our team annually. Usually I make buckwheat noodles called soba, also known as washoku. Whether hot or cold, this noodle is usually served in the simplest manner, with only a few condiments at a time. The choice is hard: San Francisco’s fickle weather the day prior might be cool and drizzly demanding a hot steaming bowl of brothy carbs, while the day of the event it feels closer to 80 and ice cold soba is the perfect choice.
Growing up, my mom used to make ‘cold somen salad’ with thin white noodles and layers of cucumber, ham, spring onions and sliced eggs on top. My mom and dad traveled to Japan several times and had a variety of delicious noodle dishes while traveling. Coming back to America, mom crafted her own version of the dish served in the summer months. Ours was a unique take on the dish, and it became a staple at family gatherings and potlucks. It was easy to prep and prepare ahead of time, and keep in the refrigerator until assembly. I continued to make it and modify it over the years — finally making it my own with an overload of garnishes and seasonings on the top. Eventually I substituted the somen with soba (somen is made with regular flour and thin like angel hair noodles, while soba is a heartier buckwheat noodle).
Preparation starts a few days prior with a trip to the Japanese grocery store in San Mateo where I get all the items you cannot find at Safeway, Rainbow or Whole Foods. This includes a selection of buckwheat soba, organic shredded nori (dried and seasoned seaweed), paper thin slices of fresh pork, soup stock sans MSG and assorted items such as hot mustard paste, spicy sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds.
Toppings vary, but almost always include thinly sliced green onion, roasted shiitake mushrooms (cooked till a deep brown in sesame oil), fresh bean sprouts, a boiled egg thinly sliced and laid out in a fan, cooked pork, thin beans or roasted asparagus and the secret — slow roasted thinly sliced garlic. In a flurry of assisted chaos, water is boiled, hot soup is carefully seasoned (I mix bottles of non-MSG soup mix with various broths, sometimes keeping it entirely meat-free for our vegan employees) and the soba noodles are cooked al dente and then placed with ice in the refrigerator.
The noodles are placed into a bowl or on top of a plate of tossed greens, with ice cold soup stock added, and the toppings are carefully placed ceremonially on top of the noodles, with a sprinkling of hot sesame oil, chili pepper flakes (Asian style), roasted garlic, spring onions and roasted sesame seeds. A touch of hot mustard is placed carefully on the side of the soba plate for dipping. VOILA! I believe even David Chang would appreciate a bowl and he of course is invited any time to the loft to try it out.
Kelly’s Cold Soba Noodles
Serves (4) — 1 hour prep and cook time, 10 minutes assembling
This is my take on soba. The preparations are endless. Definitely modify as desired, using whatever you have on hand. You can even make super simple, traditional soba dishes with only the noodles, soup for dipping, a dollop of hot mustard on the side, and topped with green onions. I have substituted and hacked together many versions of this dish for guests at the last minute.
Noodles: A variety of dried soba noodles are available at Asian stores. Cook the buckwheat soba in boiling water until tender and al dente. About 8–10 minutes. Do not overcook. Taste to make sure it is done and then drain in cold water and place in the refrigerator until ready to serve. My mom always added ice cubes when serving.
- 1 package dried buckwheat soba noodles (these come in bunches that are wrapped in paper, about 3/4" in diameter. You need at least 1/2 bunch per person. So for 4 people you’ll need about 2–3 bunches)
- Tsuyu soba noodle soup base — an easy item to have on hand. No dilution required, serve it straight out of the bottle. Chill in refrigerator or add ice cubes before serving. Buy a few at a time and store in pantry. The Shirakiku somen soup base with no MSG also works.
Toppings: Make these ahead of time. For cold soba I prefer scrambled eggs, sliced thin and long. This Sunkata Julienne peeler is a must have if you are making julienne’d vegetables fairly often. I could not live without it!
- Washed salad for base, a handful per plate
- One small or half a large seedless cucumber, julienned
- Bunch of spring onions, sliced thin (angled is fancy)
- Sliced ham, chicken, turkey — tofu works as well
- 2-3 eggs scrambled with a dash of soy sauce, cooked in sesame oil and slightly browned on both sides. Slice thin.
- (optional) Shiitake mushrooms — sliced thin and pan roasted in sesame oil, colorful orange or red pepper — sliced thin and served raw, thin sliced carrot for garnish (can julienne or shred), or Kamaboko (Japanese steamed fishcake) sliced
Garnish: This is what makes the soup unique. I always have these items on hand for multiple dishes. I make the toasted garlic for each meal which is time consuming but oh so worth it. Don't worry about getting all of these items, a bit of toasted sesame oil is really all you need.
- Toasted sesame oil — drizzle on top
- La Yu hot chili oil — drizzle on top
- Iri Goma (toasted sesame seeds) — sprinkle on top
- Kizami Nori (thin sliced roasted seaweed) — sprinkle on top (you can take some of the roasted seasoned seaweed and cut thin with a scissor as well)
- Shichimi Togarashi (mixed japanese chili pepper) — use for hot noodles only
- Pan toasted garlic slices — this is the special secret item. I slice a few cloves per serving very thin and then patiently roast them with a little bit of toasted sesame oil until it is golden brown. Cook at a low heat, tossing to turn every few minutes or so. Do not burn them. This is the best garnish for noodles or hand rolled sushi — I will talk about that in another post.
Plating: Use a shallow bowl or a large plate with a lip to hold any extra soup from spilling. Place a handful of washed salad on the plate. Layer on a handful of ice cold soba noodles. Place colorful thin sliced toppings around the noodles, adding a healthy pinch of green onions on the top. Pour ice cold soba soup mix (about 1/3 cup) to saturate all the noodles and toppings. Finally, add the garnish— drizzling the oils, garlic and shredded nori on the top, with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds on top. If spicyness is desired, squeeze a dollop of hot mustard paste on the side of the plate.