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Hot soba is served in a regular-sized bowl made of earthenware. Hot & light soba-soup is poured over it; this soup is made by mixing thick soba-soup (for dipping cold-soba) and broth made from dried fish. The soba is usually accompanied by shredded leeks. As an extra condiment, “shichimi-togarashi” (a mixture of powdered red-pepper and six other spices) is sprinkled on it to add a pungent, yet rich flavor.
This is the basic hot soba that is good in winter when you feel like eating something, but not too much.
Soba topped with deep-fried tofu
Deep-fried tofu is simmered in soy-sauce and sugar based soup. Due to the spongy structure, fried tofu absorbs the soup well. The soup flows out of the piece of tofu when you bite it; this pleases Japanese people! The soba-soup is hot, and the sweet soup in the deep-fried tofu is even hotter. Be careful not to burn your tongue! The Japanese name of this menu - “kitsune”-soba - means “fox" in English. According to an old Japanese tale, the fox is said to love deep-fried tofu very much. The Japanese believe this tale, and people offer this food to the fox deity which is enshrined in the local shrines. Therefore in Japan, deep-fried tofu is given another name “fox” because of this close relationship between them.
Soba topped with wild vegetables
This is the only menu which uses vegetables as main ingredients. But the vegetables which are used are “wild” vegetables such as bamboo shoots, wood ears (a type of mushroom), brackens, Japanese flowering fern, and “nameko” mushrooms. Most of them are gathered in mountainous areas in spring. Considering this fact, it could be said that this menu originated in rural areas, but at some point it became one of the standard soba menus nationwide.
Soba topped with tempura flakes*
The tempura flakes expand when they absorb the hot soba-soup. This provides an oily taste (of sesame-flavor) and a fluffy, melting texture. This is the cheapest topping, but its texture and flavor is worth more than its price!
There is a superabundance of tempura flakes at the traditional soba restaurants which prepare tempura. The reason is because every time soba chefs make tempura, the tempura flakes are always produced even though the chefs might not want so many. Some people say that those tempura flakes were offered as a free topping in the Tokyo area during the Taisho Period (from 1912 to 1926). But they soon became very popular, and were listed on the menu with a new name: “tanuki” in Japanese. There are stories why people started to call this topping “tanuki”, and about just what this word meant in such a context. But nowadays, most Japanese people consider this soba menu’s name to mean an animal: “tanuki”, means “raccoon” in English.
(Note: both fox and raccoon are well known to the Japanese people thanks to the fairy tales in which both of them usually deceive people. By being given such names, these soba - fox and raccoon - became humorous menus, and they might be the most widely known soba-toppings in Japan.)
Soba topped with “nori”*
Nori seaweed covers over more than a half of the surface of the soba. It absorbs the hot soup, and glistens black under the lights. According to the traditional recipe, roasted nori is crushed into small pieces by hand, placed over the hot-soba, and then the soba-bowl is covered with a lid. When you open it, steam rises up from the hot soup, bringing you a flavor of the ocean.
Although the basics are as above, how the soba with this topping is presented differs depending on the soba restaurant you dine at. The picture on the right shows the rectangle-shaped nori, and some of them are deep-fried with some tempura-batter coating.
This menu is one of the oldest among the soba menus, and is said to date back to the mid Edo Period (from 1603 to 1867). It was given the Japanese name “hana-maki”, which consists of two Chinese characters meaning: “hana” (flower) and “maki” (roll). The elegant aroma of nori inspired old people to use the metaphor “ocean-flower” to describe the “nori” seaweed. The meaning of “rolling” is unclear.
Soba topped with beaten egg boiled in soba soup
A cracked raw egg is dropped into a lipped bowl, and then, it is beaten well. The liquid egg is poured into the boiling soba-soup in a pan, little by little. The way that the egg is poured is special: the pan is rotated to make a whirlpool with the soup, and then the egg is poured while drawing a circle along its edge against the flow of the whirlpool. As soon as the egg touches the boiling soup it starts to become solid; it is tossed by the bubbles, and then, comes up to the surface.
The cooked egg is like thin clothes, and it contains bubbles in some parts. Its texture is fluffy, and the soba-soup between its layers makes the fluffy egg juicy. Some soba restaurants don’t beat the raw egg so well. As a consequence, three different parts are formed in the beaten egg: egg white, egg yolk, and a combination of both. After being cooked, these three parts provide different textures: the egg white is firm and thick, the egg yolk is like a translucent deep-yellow jelly, and the combination is fluffy and juicy.
If the soba-soup is starched, this topping is given another name “kakitama”. Due to the effect of the starch, the soup becomes hotter, and the egg becomes juicier.
Soba topped with a raw egg
On top of the soba in a bowl, a sheet of “nori” seaweed is placed, and then a raw egg is placed upon it. Now, it is time to pour the boiling soba-soup in a pan over the egg gently. The surface of the transparent egg white turns white, leaving the inner parts raw (the rest of the egg white & the whole egg yolk).
This menu is called “moon-viewing” soba. At night, a rice paddy filled with water reflects the full moon in the sky, and the moon is slightly obscured by a cloud. The nori is the rice paddy at night, the moon is the egg yolk, and the cloud is the egg white with a translucent-white surface. What a poetic menu it is!
Besides its graceful presentation, this dish presents another issue: I sometimes wonder how to eat this menu properly. The raw egg yolk is very fragile and it seems not to be a good idea to bite into it partly. If we do so, the liquid inside will flow out into the soup. Also, the partly heated egg white will be mixed into the soup if it loses the support of the nori underneath. Once the egg drops into the soup, it is impossible to pick them up with the chopsticks, and it is difficult to do so even with a spoon. Therefore, as a temporary solution, I eat the egg and nori first, and then soba. But this isn’t totally satisfactory because I am enjoying the egg and soba separately. Does anyone have a good suggestion?
Soba topped with fish cakes*, rolled omelet*, shiitake mushroom, and baked wheat-gluten*
A wide variety of ingredients are topped on the soba - half-moon shape “kamaboko” fish-cakes, a “naruto” fish-cake with a red & white whirlpool pattern, “datemaki” Japanese-style rolled omelet, “shiitake” mushroom simmered down in a sweet and savory broth, a baked wheat-gluten which fully absorbs the hot soba-soup, and green vegetables - actually, they cover almost the entire surface of the soba!
Fish-cake products are a traditional food in Japan, and it is an ordinary topping for any kind of noodles including soba. This menu would be ordinary, too, if these toppings were placed just randomly on the soba. But what makes it special is that each of the toppings has a meaning. The Japanese name of this menu is “okame”, which is taken from the name of the old mask of a funny-faced woman. The toppings are arranged to express the face of “okame”: rolled omelet & wheat gluten are eyebrows; “naruto” fish-cakes are eyes; “kamaboko” fish-cakes are cheeks; boiled egg is a nose, and “shiitake” mushroom is a mouth. The meaning of each topping and the way to present them are slightly different depending on the soba restaurant, but the important thing is that they look like the face of “okame”. You can enjoy a wide variety of orthodox Japanese food simply by eating this menu!
Soba topped with grated Japanese yam* which is mixed with egg white and garnished with egg yolk
White, fluffy, yet gooey raw yam over hot soba; this is a very standard and popular soba-menu among the Japanese. Basically, egg white is mixed into the grated yam, whipped well, and poured over the hot soba, and then, egg yolk is placed over the yam. Its appearance might resemble an egg which is fried sunny-side up.
Since the topping is half liquid, the soba under the topping should be picked up gently while trying to scoop up the yam as much as possible. At the same time, we have to prevent the gooey yam from going down toward the bottom of the bowl. Since hot soba is served in plenty of soup, people tend to leave some of the yam which dissolved into the soup while eating.
If the grated yam is not mixed with egg white and is not garnished with egg yolk, it is given another name “tororo”.
Soba in a soup with wild duck* & leek
On a cold day during the height of winter, nothing among the soba menus would warm your heart & body up than this hot-soba with wild duck & leek. Wild duck, a migratory bird which comes and stays in Japan during winter, becomes most fatty and tasty after their arrival in this country. Boned and cut into thick slices, the wild duck is simmered in a soba-soup with strips of leek. Rich grease from the duck makes the soba-soup even hotter. Gentle sweetness from both the duck & leek enriches the flavor of the soba-soup.
The meat of wild duck is firmer than chicken or pork, and it is tough to chew. While chewing the meat and drinking the tasty hot-soup, your body will be warmed up fully. The cold weather waiting for you outside the restaurant won't bother you much at all after you eat this dish!
(note: a hybrid type of wild- and domesticated-duck, which became more commonly used for this menu, is not as firm as the pure wild-duck)
As variations of this type of soba, I might mention other combinations of meet & leek. You can choose chopped pork or slices of chicken instead of duck.
Soba in soba-soup seasoned with curry*
Soba and spicy curry which originates in India: a unique dish among the traditional soba menus, and one with an exotic flavor. You might think that this menu should not be categorized as Japanese food. But for the Japanese, especially for Tokyo residents, this menu is theirs, and is their favorite.
According to a story explaining its origin, this type of soba was invented as a combination of hot soba with wild duck & leek and curry-powder (which is specially prepared for soba) in the late Meiji Period (from 1868 to 1912). It was the time when Japan started to westernize the country after having opened it to foreigners. The introduction of the curry and rice was a part of the westernization. During this phase, a lady, who dealt with spices, prepared a special curry powder which she thought would go well with the soba, and her brother, who owned a soba-restaurant, added the curry soba on the menu list. Because of the curry flavor and its unusual ocher-colored soup, most of the people in Tokyo, who were used to the traditional taste of soba, didn’t accept the new menu first.
Japanese westernization was propagated by the upper classes of society, and by the time it reached to the lower classes, curry & rice, Japanese-style, became popular as did soba in curry soup. Nowadays, the sliced & chopped pork is the meat which is generally used instead of duck, but the other recipes still remain the same. This menu is a Japanese favorites, especially in the winter season. The hot soup, which is starchy and thick, and the spicy curry-taste will surely enhance your appetite!
Soba topped with prawn tempura
Prawns, coated with a thick, deep-fried batter, lie on the hot soba in the soup, resting their red heads* on the edge of the soba-bowl as if it were a pillow. (*Biologically speaking, they are tails, but as food they look like heads!)
Soba topped with prawn tempura - a very traditional and iconic combination among soba dishes. This combination of hot soba and tempura was invented in the late Edo Period (from 1603 to 1867). However, it was “shiba” shrimp (smaller than prawns) which were used for tempura; they were deep-fried “kakiage”* style. The soba with a large prawn or prawns became popular during the Showa Period (from 1926 to 1989) when the catches of the “shiba” shrimp had sharply declined.
When the piping hot, large prawn-tempura, which is sometimes still sizzling, is brought to the table, people always welcome it with joyful cheers. The tempura looks unusually large and beautiful, and that is why this dish is the most appealing for pictures or photographs. Of course, the prawn itself is large, but there is a special technique to make them look so big.
When prawns are heated, their shapes naturally become like a hair-pin, in other words, they bend backwards. To prevent this shrinking, the prawns, which are taken out of their shells (except for the tails), are given hidden cuts: the sinew of the ventral side is cut at some points, and then the body is pushed and stretched from the back, form the head side to the tail. By being prepared in this way, the prawn can be deep-fried directly without curving, and the tempura-butter coating helps the straight prawn give people the impression that it is quite large.
Generally, the prawn tempura is served on soba; the tempura-batter coating is already soaked in the hot soba-soup. It has a fluffy, juicy texture (with some crunchy parts), and a nice aroma of sesame oil. Inside of it, there is a prawn with a red and white striped pattern, whose texture is crunchy outside and meaty inside.
Some connoisseurs ask the restaurant to bring the soba and the prawn-tempura separately. This is because they want to enjoy the crunchy prawn-tempura with hot soba.
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