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It is said that most of the soba menus which you can choose from at soba restaurants were created during the late Edo Period: more than a century ago. The basic menus haven’t changed so much since then, although some menus disappeared at some point. Perhaps people didn’t like them, or it became difficult to acquire the necessary ingredients. In their place, some new menus that reflected the trend of times were added. There are roughly two types of soba in menus: cold and hot. Both cold and hot soba come in many varieties. So let’s have a look at them one by one!
Menu of Cold Soba
Cold soba is generally served on "zaru" or "seiro". "Zaru" is a tool which is used to drain water. Thin splits of bamboo are weaved, similar to making a basket, yet it is not round but flat (slightly curving), and woven closely. "Seiro” is a steamer. A bamboo blind (like a sushi mat) is set horizontally on the middle of a square- or rectangle-shaped wooden frame. Although both "zaru" and "seiro" are kitchen tools, they became ideal tableware for eating soba. Soba is served after draining water, but not completely. So the excess water runs down from the soba onto the tray after being served. However, thanks to the mesh-like structure of "zaru" and "seiro", the soba which is dished up at the bottom is not swollen.
Soba is served with thick dipping soup, which is made of Japanese-style soup-stock (made from dried bonito), soy-sauce, Japanese sweet sake, and sugar. The soup is sometimes served in a small soba-cup and sometimes in a small bottle with an empty cup to enable people to pour as much soup as they like. Shredded leek and grated “wasabi” are the basic condiments used to enrich the flavor of the soup. At some places, grated “daikon” radish comes with the condiments.
This is the simplest soba menu of all. It is just noodles cooked in boiling water, and then washed in cold water to firm up the texture. However, it is because of this simplicity that you can tell the good soba from the bad as soon as you eat it. Also, plain soba allows you to enjoy the noodle more than when they are hidden behind the flavors of other ingredients. Therefore, soba connoisseurs are said to love this menu more than any other, and enjoy talking about the quality of soba while eating this type of soba.
Soba topped with “nori”*
Shredded “nori” seaweed is used to garnish the top of the piled soba. The contrast between black nori and grayish-white soba is striking. When you pick up a bunch of soba to dip it into the soba-cup, some nori will come along with it, since the nori is dry and it sticks to the surface of the wet soba. The flavor of nori is faint and it goes well with the delicate aroma of soba. Nori topping might sound too simple. But the Tokyo people love simplicity, and the combination of soba & nori has been their favorite for quite a long time.
Soba topped with tempura flakes*
Soba topped with deep-fried tofu*
Soba topped with grated Japanese yam* which is mixed with egg white and garnished with egg yolk
All three dishes are seasonal menus during summer (some shops serve them all year round). These toppings are generally for hot soba, so as for the menu of cold soba, I will just show you the pictures of them so you can see what they look like. One thing which I have to note here is that the tempura flakes over cold soba are hard & crunchy. The same tempura flakes become soft, or nearly melting, by soaking them in hot soba-soup when you get the hot version of this menu. So enjoy the snack-like texture of tempura flakes with cold soba!
Dipping Soup Variety
Soba with a dipping soup of grated Japanese yam*
Grated raw Japanese yam is mixed into soba-soup and whipped, and is then served in a small cup. Sometimes it is accompanied by a raw quail egg. The soba-soup becomes sticky because of the finely grated yam, thus the soup and yam adhere to the soba well. This dipping soup is rich, healthy, and nutritious. You can fully enjoy the unique flavor and texture of raw yam with this soba. In the case of the hot soba topped with grated raw yam, the flavor of the yam becomes weaker because it dissolves into a large amount of hot soup, generally served in a regular-sized bowl.
Soba with a dipping soup of wild duck* & leek
Sliced duck and leek, which is cut into strips, are boiled in thick soba-soup. This dipping soup is the only one that is served very hot. It is served in a small bowl made of earthenware (the size of a café au lait bowl). Be careful not to burn your fingers on the hot bowl! I did when I ate this menu for the first time. The taste of the duck enriches the soba soup, and the leek moderates the wild flavor of the duck. The soba menus using wild duck, both cold and hot, are some of the star menus of soba along with the menus using tempura. The soup really goes well with soba.
Side Dish Variety
Soba with Tempura*
Plain soba is accompanied by piping hot tempura - what a delight! At soba restaurants, the word “tempura” basically and traditionally indicates prawn tempura of one or two pieces. But depending on the restaurants you visit, the prawn is sometimes garnished with vegetable tempura, or you can choose other seafood tempura or just vegetable tempura instead of prawn. The dipping soup is a bit different from the ordinary soba-soup: it is a little sweeter. Some restaurants serve two types of dipping soup; one is for soba and the other is for tempura. Soba is best to be eaten as soon as it is served, as is tempura. Which should we eat first? From my observation, people eat them, having a half of mouthful of soba and half a mouthful of tempura. You have two alternatives before every single bite, which might brings you a feeling of joyful embarrassment! Soba with tempura is the most luxurious menu of them all.
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