“Jindaiji! Yeah, that area is known for its soba, you should definitely go.” This is what one of my English students told me this morning. Summer vacation is on the horizon after all and having decided to stay close and explore my new home in Tokyo, I asked her for some suggestions. Soba was the answer, albeit one that I thought I knew well. However, as with many things in Japan, this culinary dish has multiple layers worth peeling back.
Soba is actually the Japanese word for buckwheat, but overtime it has become synonymous with the thin noodles made from it. It is not as well-known outside of Japan as the country`s other popular dish, ramen. Still, here it is a savored national food, especially in Tokyo. Buckwheat has been grown as far back as the Nara period for its excellent sources of Vitamin B. Records show that during the Tokugawa shogunate, soba and their restaurants, soba-ya, could be found in every neighborhood as a quick stop-eat-go option to the tired and hungry traveler. Today, they are an easy meal to be enjoyed in a hurry in train stations across Japan.
Thinking of trying some? Well as you`d guess, there are a variety of Soba styles to choose from. They can be bought at grocery stores or traditional markets to be cooked at home or eaten in specialty restaurants. I have often enjoyed one of the most common types, Mori soba: cold noodles accompanied by thin strips of dried seaweed and a tangy dip. Hiyashi soba is another cold option that is sprinkled with diverse toppings including puree Japanese yam, daikon or natto and finally covered in a broth. If hot is your thing, the soba is usually served as a soup with popular ingrediants like shichimi togarashi (mixed chili powder). There are of course regional variants, like the Okinawan Soki soba: noodles covered in stewed pork. I can attest to the deliciousness of this one as I tried it in an Okinawan themed eatery in Tama-rein.
The list goes on as masters in every prefecture continue to concoct new twists on an old favorite. If the challenge to try them all seems daunting, take heart, there`s never a soba-ya too far away. As for me, I`m heading to Jindaiji.