Summer is nigh upon us and as the weather heats up it’s natural to crave foods that are cooling, refreshing, healthy, and light. Sometimes when the sun’s beating down and the humidity is creeping up I crave Zaru Soba, a classic Japanese dish of chilled noodles with a cooling dipping sauce on the side. It’s pretty simple to make, very healthy for you, and it’ll definitely refresh you on a sultry day.
The dish is made from soba noodles that have been boiled for three minutes and then drained and washed in cold water to stop the cooking process. They should be a little toothsome, but perhaps not as chewy as Italian pastas cooked classically al dente. The soba should be refrigerated for at least an hour before serving. The most widely available soba noodles are made from a combination of buckwheat flour and wheat flour, but for this version of Zaru Soba I used cha soba, noodles that have been made with powdered green tea, which gives them a lovely emerald hue and an elegance that the more rustic soba lacks. If you have a good Japanese market near you look for the green tea noodles — they are fantastic!
Also, if you have access to a decent Japanese market ask for a zaru, which is a sieve-like bamboo mat that chilled soba is traditionally served on. Although you’re supposed to dip the noodles into the cold men-tsuyu sauce on the side, I’ve seen people pour the sauce over the noodles on the zaru; the gaps between the bamboo slats allows for excess sauce to drip off into the plate below, allowing you to have just enough of the dipping sauce clinging to your noodles. It’s simple and quite ingenious.
Men-tsuyu is a simple sauce made from dashi, soy, and mirin and it’s served chilled. I recommend that you start with your own homemade dashi broth (check out my link below) but you can use the instant powdered variety (Hon-dashi from Ajinomoto is one brand I’ve used). Or save even more time and buy the dip pre-made and ready-to-go; you’ll find it in bottles on the shelf at your local Japanese market. It’s not quite as fresh and tasty as the stuff you make from scratch, but it will do in a pinch, especially if this is your first attempt. I really hope you have access to a decent Asian market, but if your neighborhood doesn’t have one try online at asianfoodgrocer.com, which should have everything you need.
The noodles are topped with lots of sliced scallions and shredded nori (dried pressed seaweed — ya know, the kind you wrap up sushi rolls with). In addition I added a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, a few daikon sprouts, and some little bits of crunchy toasted brown rice (genmai), which is typically tossed into green tea for a rich, roasty flavor but which I like to add to the noodles for a little textural zip.
The men-tsuyu should be served in a bowl on the side, with wasabi as a option to mix into it. A little grated fresh ginger might be a nice substitute if you’d like. Sometimes I’ll also add a little shake of ichimi togarashi, a lovely Japanese chili powder, for a bit of extra heat to the dipping sauce. I used fresh wasabi root grated on a sharkskin-lined paddle designed for that sole purpose, but both fresh wasabi root (and the sharkskin grater) are rare and expensive. Use prepared wasabi in a tube or a paste of wasabi prepared from powder.
Men-tsuyu noodle dipping sauce:
- 2 cups ichiban dashi (made from kombu and katsuobushi)
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup mirin (Japanese cooking wine)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
Notes on the noodles:
- cook in rapidly boiling water for three minutes (if it foams turn heat down)
- drain and rinse immediately under cold running water
- drain well again and chill for about an hour (or more)
- put noodles on the zaru (or in a shallow bowl)
- top with nori, scallions, daikon sprouts, sesame seeds, and/or crunchy genmai
- serve with wasabi on the side
- eat up!
Use the recipe for ichiban dashi is my miso soup post: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/miso-hungry/