Noodles in Japan are made with light, healthy sauces which never contain dairy. Simple, clean, and delicious, they are also quick to prepare.

Japanese Noodles have little in common with Italian pasta: The ingredients and shapes are distinct, and they’re treated completely differently. whereas most Italians scorn cold noodles and use cheese, oil, butter, and cream freely, a serving of cold soba – thin buckwheat noodles – with only a simple, soy-based dipping sauce is a staple in Japan.

Most Japanese adore noodles and eat more of them than any other dish. The finest noodle makers in Japan are designated as Living Treasures. But most of all, the Japanese slurp down noodles as the ultimate fast food, traditional dishes served in noodle shops, instant ramen bolted down as a quick snack at home, and bowls of noodles cooked over charcoal braziers by street vendors.

Many Asian and natural foods stores carry a large assortment of noodles; you may see squiggly dried ramen (usually packaged with dehydrated broth); harusame, which looks like giant pads of translucent steel wool and is made from a variety of ingredients; even shirataki and konnayaku, the long, clear, shiny noodles made from a kind of yam. But the most widely available noodles are udon and somen, which are made from wheat, and soba, which is made from buckwheat and wheat. All of these can be found both fresh and dried. Their differences are significant, and determine how they are best used in cooking.

Noddle Basics

Japanese cooking, like that of many other countries, varies by region. Soba, the word for both the buckwheat from which the noodles are made and the noodles themselves, is associated with Tokyo and northern Japan, where the cool climate favors growing buckwheat and where the warming quality of these noodles is welcome. You can find soba made entirely from buckwheat, but noodles made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour are more common. All soba tastes nutty and faintly bitter; the more buckwheat, the stronger the flavor. Because buckwheat contains no gluten (which lends elasticity), 100 percent buckwheat soba breaks easily when cooked and turns to mush if overcooked; furthermore, since manufacturing it is a delicate process, pure buckwheat soba costs more than that made with a mixture of wheat and buckwheat. For these reasons, most soba noodles contain wheat.

The full flavor of soba noodles makes them ideal for simple preparations – these are the noodles frequently served cold with dipping sauce – but it also enables them to stand up to full-flavored sauces.

From Osaka down to Kyushu, at the southern tip of Japan, wheat flour udon noodles are prevalent. These chewy, plump, creamy-white noodles are made from high-gluten wheat flour and can be round, square, or rectangular. They come in a range of thicknesses, from medium to quite thick. Since they are much blander than soba, they are, like Italian pasta, more of a vehicle for other flavors. Traditionally served with a strong broth, dipping sauce, or topping, typically flavored with ginger, soy sauce, and scallions, udon are also wonderful with sweet-hot Indonesian peanut sauce, curry, or chili-spiked sauce. Whatever the preparation, soba noodles soak up sauce and hold it well.

Somen are extra fine wheat noodles made with salt and a tiny bit of oil. Most somen are white, but some are yellow from the addition of egg yolks, pink from umeboshi plum and red shiso, or pale green from powdered green tea. These special somen, as well as ones made with particularly fine grades of flour, can cost as much as twenty dollars a package. They are meant to be given as gifts or served on special occasions. Somen are most often served cold. For example, in one popular summer dish, the noodles are presented immersed in water in a clear glass bowl, accompanied by sparkling ice cubes, slices of cucumber, and mandarin orange sections. But somen are great hot, too; try the spicy “Somen with Sauteed Eggplant”.

How to Cook Japanese Noodles

Watching and testing are the keys to cooking Japanese noodles successfully. Although you can cook Japanese noodles like Italian pasta, in constantly boiling water, I find the Japanese sashimizu, or “add water” method gives consistently better results. Unlike Italian pasta, which is made from semolina, Japanese noodles are made from wheat and/or buckwheat flour. As these noodles cook, their surface easily gets overdone and soft by the time they are cooked through. Using the sashimizu method helps avoid this.

To use this method, bring a pot of water to a boil, add the noodles, and when the water returns to the boil pour in a cup of cold water. Each time the water begins to boil, our in another cup until the noodles are done. It takes only a couple of minutes longer than the Italian method and gives the noodles just the right texture instead of letting them go mushy on the outside while staying hard in the middle. The exact time required varies with the type of noodles, their thickness, and the amount being cooked. However, udon generally require the addition of three to four cups water, soba two to three cups, and somen one or two cups, so make sure you start with a pot that is big enough to accommodate the added water. As you’re cooking, test the noodles constantly by biting into a single strand; they should be firm but tender when done.

When the noodles are cooked, drain them well, then immediately rinse them under cold running water to wash away the surface starch. This will keep the noodles from sticking together. Precooking, rinsing, and even refrigerating and reheating does not affect soba and udon (somen are too thin to reheat without overcooking). This is a decided advantage over Italian-style semolina pastas, which become rubbery when precooked and chilled. So feel free to cook soba and udon ahead of time; store them, refrigerated, in a plastic bag for up to a day (undercook them slightly unless you will serve them cold). Reheat them by placing them in a colander or strainer and dunking them in boiling water.

JAPANESE VEGETABLES STOCK (Dashi)

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

It is a good stock for most Japanese noodle dishes.

1 carrot, cut in 1-inch pieces 1 rib celery, cut in thirds 1 scallion, white part only, halved 1 shiitake mushroom, softened in warm water and drained 1 3-inch piece kombu (kelp)

In a 1 1/2-quart pot, combine carrot, celery, scallion, mushroom, and kombu with 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, remove kombu, and reduce heat. Simmer broth until vegetables are easily pierced with a knife, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove vegetables. Liquid will be reduced to 2 to 2 1/2 cups.

COLD SOBA NOODLES WITH DIPPING SAUCE (Zaru Soba)

Serves 4

The Japanese serve this traditional cold dish during warm weather, but I find the hearty taste of its buckwheat noodles and rich dipping sauce appealing any time. This version is adapted from At Home with Japenese Cooking by Elizabeth Andoh. You can make this ahead and assemble it just before serving.

Dipping Sauce

1 1/2 cups vegetable stock 3 tablespoons shoyu 1 1/2 tablespoons Sucanat 1 tablespoon mirin 12 ounces dried soba noodles 1/2 sheet nori

Condiments

1/4 cup chopped scallions 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger 2 teaspoons wasabi

  1. Combine stock, shoyu, Sucanat, and mirin in small saucepan, heat through, stirring to dissolve the Sucanat. Chill well.
  2. Prepare soba, using sashimizu method described on page 78. Drain, then rinse, and drain well. Mound noodles on 4 small plates.
  3. Hold the nori over direct heat for a minute or so. Fold several times and crumble in clean, dry towel. Sprinkle crumbled nori over each mound of noodles. Serve with individual cups of dipping sauce. Provide condiments in serving dish or in separate small dishes, to add to dipping sauce at the table.

SOBA WITH MUSHROOM SAUCE

Makes 4 servings

Here’s an East-West version of pasta with mushrooms, sparked with tamari and fresh lime. It’s equally good with udon; or substitute lemon juice for lime.

1/2 pound white mushrooms 1 pound cremini or other mushrooms V4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 garlic cloves, minced 1/2 cup vegetable stock or water 2 tablespoons dry sherry 1 tablespoon tamari 12 ounces dried soba 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice 1/4 cup chopped parsley Salt and pepper to taste

  1. For the sauce: Wipe mushrooms with damp paper towel to remove dirt. Trim away stems. Cut white mushrooms into 3/8-inch slices. Slice cremini and shiitake mushrooms as thinly as possible.
  2. Heat olive oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Saute garlic until it starts to color, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms; cook until they start to give up their liquid. Increase heat to high and cook 3 to 4 more minutes, until mushrooms are soft, stirring occasionally. Add vegetable stock, sherry, and tamari. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pan, simmer 5 minutes.
  3. For the soba: While sauce cooks, bring large pot of water to boil. Cook soba, using sashimizu method described on page 78. Drain well and divide soba among 4 plates.
  4. Stir lime juice and minced parsley into sauce. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Pour over the soba and serve.

UDON GADO-GADO WITH STIR-FRIED VEGETABLES

Makes 4 servings

The combination of slightly sweet Indonesian-style peanut sauce over crisp-tender vegetables and chewy noodles makes a satisfying one-dish meal. Lovers of hot food can increase the spiciness to incendiary levels.

3 large dried shiitake mushrooms 1/2 cup smooth, unsweetened peanut butter 2 large garlic cloves, minced 2 tablespoons shoyu 4 teaspoons maple syrup 4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil 2 teaspoons shiro miso 1 tablespoon rice vinegar Generous pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste 16 ounces dried udon 3 tablespoons peanut or olive oil 1 sweet red pepper, seeded, cut in 2-by-1/4-inch strips 1 medium carrot, cut in 2-by-1/4-inch batons 2 cups Napa cabbage, sliced in 1/2-inch slices 2 cups bean sprouts 3 scallions, white and green parts, cut in -inch lengths 1/4 cup minced cilantro

  1. Pour 2/3 cup warm water over mushrooms, soak until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from water, squeeze gently to remove excess liquid; reserve soaking liquid. Remove and discard stems. Cut caps into 1/4-inch strips. Set aside.
  2. For the sauce: In food processor or blender, combine peanut butter, garlic, shoyu, maple syrup, roasted sesame oil, miso, rice vinegar, and cayenne pepper with 1/2 cup of mushroom soaking liquid. Process until blended.
  3. For the noodles: Cook udon, using the sashimzu method described on page 78. Drain, rinse well under cold running water, and drain again. Set aside.
  4. In wok, heat oil over high heat. Add red pepper and carrots; stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Add cabbage and sliced shiitake mushrooms; stir-fry I minute. Add bean sprouts and scallions; stir-fry 30 seconds. Remove wok from stove.
  5. Add cooked udon to wok and toss gently to mix with vegetables. Add sauce, toss to blend. Serve. Or, to serve dish warm, after adding noodles, cook with vegetables until heated but not hot, add sauce, stir to blend. Top with minced cilantro and serve.

SOMEN WITH SAUTEED EGGPLANT

Makes 4 servings

Thin-skinned, sweet Japanese eggplant are best for this dish; grilling the eggplant adds an extra flavorful touch.

1 pound Japanese eggplant or regular eggplant 3 tablespoons peanut oil 1/4 cup aka miso 1 tablespoons stock or water 2 teaspoons shichimi or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar 1 teaspoon grated orange zest 8 ounces somen 1/2 cup hot stock or vegetable broth 1 tablespoon finely sliced scallions

  1. For Japanese eggplant, cut diagonally in 1/2-inch slices; for regular eggplant, cut in 1/4-inch half-moons.
  2. Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add eggplant in one layer. Cook 3 minutes, until golden brown. Turn and cook until other side is browned, about 1 minute. Cover and cook 4 to 7 minutes, until soft.
  3. For the sauce. While eggplant is cooking, combine miso, stock or water, shichimi, mi, vinegar, and orange zest in a small pot. Cook over medium heat until heated through, stirring occasionally, about minutes minutes. Set aside.
  4. For noodles: Cook somen, using sashimizu method described on page 78. Drain, rinse in cold running water, and drain well. Divide somen among 4 plates. Moisten each portion with 2 tablespoons hot stock.
  5. Spread about a teaspoon of miso mixture on each slice of eggplant. Arrange a fourth of the slices on each plate of noodles. Sprinkle with scallions. Serve.

UDON WITH BROCCOLI AND SWEET POTATO IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE

Makes 6 servings

Use the thickest udon you can find to make this. The chewy texture is a perfect contrast to the sweet potatoes and broccoli. Serve leftovers at room temperature as a colorful salad.

  • 1 tablespoon salted dried black beans
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry
  • 1 medium sweet potato
  • 12 ounces udon
  • 7 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 4 large shallots, about ¼ pound, peeled, sliced, and separated into rings
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 dried chipotle chili, seeded, soaked, and minced
  • 1/4 cup vegetable stock or water
  • 2 tablespoons umeboshi or balsamic vinegar
  • 4 cups small broccoli florets, blanched
  1. In small bowl, soak black beans in sherry for 15 minutes. Drain, discard liquid, set aside.
  2. Peel sweet potato, slice into 1/4-inch rounds. Cut into half-moons.
  3. Cook udon, using sashimizu method described on page 78. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Set aside in a colander or large sieve.
  4. In small, heavy skillet, heat 4 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Fry shallots until they begin to brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside to drain on paper towels.
  5. In large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil. Arrange sweet potatoes in 1 layer and cook over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes, taking care not too brown. turn, cook 2 minutes longer. Cover pan, reduce heat to low, cook potatoes until soft, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from pan, set aside. Wipe pan and set back on stove over medium-high heat.
  6. Add remaining tablespoon of oil to pan. Add garlic and ginger, cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. With wooden spoon, mash black beans and minced chipotle chili into garlic and ginger. Pour in mirin, shoyu, and vegetable stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer until reduced by a quarter, about 4 minutes. Stir in vinegar. Add broccoli and cooked sweet potatoes, mix to coat vegetables with sauce. Cook until vegetables are heated through.
  7. For the noodles: Meanwhile, bring large pot of water to boil. Plunge in colander containing noodles. Cook until udon are heated through. Drain and divide among 6 plates. Top with broccoli-sweet potato-black bean mixture. Garnish with fried shallots. Serve.

SOBA-FILLED NORI ROLLS (Soba-Maki)

Serves 6 as first course,

3 as main course

I think the contrast of velvety soba and cool, crisp cucumber accented by pungent wasabi and savory umeboshi plum paste is worth the time involved. The technique is quite simple, especially if you invest in a bamboo sushi mat, an inexpensive and handy tool.

  • 1/2 cucumber, peeled
  • 8 ounces soba, preferably
  • 100 percent buckwheat
  • Wasabi paste
  • Umeboshi plum paste
  • 3 sheets nori
  • Pickled ginger for garnish
  1. Halve cucumber lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Cut each half again lengthwise, then cut each piece into 1/4-inch-by-2 1/2-inch strips. Cook soba, using sashimizu method described on page 78; take care to leave noodles quite firm. Drain, rinse throughly, and drain very well.
  2. Lay noodles on paper towel and blot to absorb excess moisture. Divide into three batches and line up noodles in each batch lengthwise. With your index and middle fingers, smear a bit of wasabi paste along noodles closest to you. Repeat with umeboshi paste. Lay cucumber along this edge making a strip about Y,-inch wide.
  3. If your nori doesn’t say “pre-toasted” on the package, hold each piece by an edge, shiny side down, and pass briefly over direct heat to crisp. Place nori on sushi mat, with long side closest to you.
  4. Place a batch of noodles on nori, parallel to and along the long edge of the nori that is closest to you. Spread noodles out so they cover the entire sheet, leaving 1-inch strip uncovered along the edge away from you.
  5. Carefully lift edge of bamboo mat closest to you, fold over the noodle-covered nori, and roll, using tucking and pulling motion so sushi is firmly packed. Don’t worry about soba or cucumber hanging out at either end. When sushi is rolled, using fingertips, firmly press mat toward you all along the length of roll to be sure edge is well sealed. Repeat with remaining nori and filling.
  6. With sharp, thin-bladed knife, trim off noodles sticking out ends of roll. Rinse and dry knife after each cut. Slice roll in half crosswise with strong, firm stroke. Cut each half into three pieces. Cut remaining rolls. Serve, accompanied by pickled ginger, if desired.

UDON WITH LENTILS AND CURRIED ONIONS

Makes 4 servings

If you have cooked lentils on hand, this dish is as easy as boiling water and suateing onions. The curry in the onions infuses the entire dish with flavor. Sometimes, I ladle on a big cup of stock and enjoy this as a hearty soup.

  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 large onion, cut in 1/4-inch slices
  • 2 teaspoons mild curry powder
  • 8 ounces dried udon
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • 2 tablespoons shoyu
  • 2 cups cooked green lentils
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  1. Heat oil in medium skillet. Add onions, saute over medium heat until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add curry powder, stir to coat onions. Cook until onions are very soft, 3 to 5 minutes longer, stirring occassionally.
  2. Cook udon, using sashimizu method described on page 78. Drain, rinse well under cold running water, and drain. Divide udon among 4 shallow bowls.
  3. Combine stock with mirin and shoyu in small saucepan and heat.
  4. Warm lentils gently and season with salt to taste. Top each portion of noodles with 1/2-cup lentils and quarter of curried onions. Pour 1/2 cup hot stock over. Sprinkle cilantro over each bowl. Serve.