The humidity is creeping up on us a little more each day, now that we are in the swing of the rainy season. I can only anticipate the discomfort that will occur in the full-blown summer of Japan. When it’s hot and humid, I know the last thing on one’s mind is cooking. Hot weather dulls the appetite as well, since it’s hard to think about eating hot food. Luckily Japan has mastered the art of delicious cold food, so today I present to you a one-pot dish of joy called Zaru Soba.
I first had this delightful cold meal in Yamadera where it is a famous local specialty. I noticed how simple it would be to prepare at home, and promptly did so the following week. The dish consists of cooked, cold soba noodles, which you dip in a broth-like liquid and eat with various preferred condiments such as seaweed, green onions and pickled cucumbers. It is now Andrew’s favorite Japanese dish, and he can cook it too, which should prove to you its simplicity! My husband is not as experienced in the kitchen as I, although he feigns incompetency as a way of deferring the cooking duties to me. Luckily I have found a dish we both enjoy cooking, and I hope you will enjoy it too.
The ingredient list is short: soba noodles, zaru sauce, and toppings.
dried soba – You want a thicker soba noodle, avoid the angle-hair style. If you are in Japan, the thick type usually have a picture of Zaru soba on them, so that should make it easy. I use one standard size package for two people. I’d love to tell you actual amount but I can’t read the Japanese and my understanding of the metric system sucks anyway. See the photo for size reference. This dish is also great because you can make a few noodles as a snack or side, or up the quantity for a whole meal
sauce for dipping – If you live in Japan it is sold at essentially all markets, even convenience stores. The bottle also pictures an image of cold soba noodles on the label. In America you might find this at your local Asian grocer, look for a bottle labeled Zaru ざる. If you can’t find this it is pretty simple to make, and you can vary it depending on your desired flavor. The basic components are:
1 ½ cups of dashi stock
¼ cup of mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine)
¼ cup soy sauce
pinch of salt
Since dashi stock is a whole other recipe I don’t want to go into here, I will say that my palette is not refined enough to be able to notice the subtle influences of dashi. If you use a little more soy sauce and add water to taste, you will be on the right track to mimicking the zaru sauce. I would even add a splash of rice vinegar for some tang. The idea is to have a light, thin liquid that will give the noodles some flavor without clinging to them like a traditional pasta sauce
toppings – the traditional items are finely chopped strips of nori seaweed and finely chopped green onions. In Yamadera they included pickled cucumbers, which were delicious. In Japan you can buy pre-chopped green onion mix and pre-sliced nori. I buy the ingredients whole and chop them myself. I also add thin slices of fresh cucumber and a few sesame seeds. They provide a roasted flavor, so if you don’t want this just omit them. Other options include pickled ginger, tempura flakes, and chili oil if you want to make it spicy.
Preparation: Once you have your toppings ready, simply boil a pot of water and add your soba. The thicker soba takes approximately 5 minutes to cook, just test a noodle for doneness. Strain the noodles in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and to achieve the desired “cold” noodles. If you are preparing other items with this meal, you can leave the noodles in the colander while you do other things. Simply rinse with water again to separate the noodles when you’re ready.
Place a small amount of the zaru sauce in a medium to large sized bowl. You want enough to coat the noodles but they do not have to be swimming. It is not necessary to add a lot of sauce as it does not stick to the noodles. Place your condiments on the table and the drained soba on a plate. I line the plate with a couple paper towels to absorb extra moisture and prevent slippage.
The final preparation is at the dinner table. To enjoy, place a helping of noodles in your bowl with the zaru sauce already in it. Stir in your noodles and toppings and its ready to eat!
For some protein and in keeping with the cold food, you can serve this with sashimi or edamame. If you order this in Japan they actually serve the soba in a woven basket. It is a nice touch if you want to serve this to folks at a dinner party. This is an ideal dinner party recipe because it can be prepared in advance and won’t get cold!
Subarashi is the Japanese word for wonderful, so when I eat this I like to say sobarashi!