Noodles are a major part of the Japanese diet, hot and cold. Ramen, soba, and udon are probably the three most popular types of noodles served hot with a broth, or cold without one. Wikipedia tells us that most ramen is made from wheat flour, salt, water and kansui. Kansui is an alkaline mineral water named after Lake Kan in Inner Mongolia. Lake Kan contained just the right amounts of minerals for making ramen. Soba is made from buckwheat and wheat flour while udon is created from wheat flour alone. Soba noodles are probably the thinnest, and ramen is not that much larger. Udon noodles are definitely thicker. The most popular noodles in Japan are ramen, which are followed by soba, and then udon.
During the winter, these noodles are more commonly eaten hot, although many restaurants have cold noodles on the menu. Soba restaurants serve zaru soba, which is cold soba, all year round. Zaru refers to the loose bamboo mat beneath the cold noodles, which serves as a colander to let the water drain. Restaurants that sell cold udon also leave udon on the menu year-round, even though fewer people order it. Most restaurants serving ramen only put cold ramen on the menu for a limited time ranging from sometime in May through sometime in September. This may be because making cold ramen requires additional ingredients, unlike making cold soba and udon.
Restaurants serve cold ramen, soba, and udon in a variety of ways, but here I will talk about the most common way for each. Ramen is boiled as usual and then chilled in cold water. The ramen is drained; put into a bowl; covered with ingredients that commonly include cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, strips of ham or pork, and thin strips of egg; and served. Cold ramen was traditionally soy sauce flavored only, but many restaurants now also offer sesame seed flavor. A dab of hot mustard is served on the side to mix in with the noodles. Other kinds of cold ramen are served with soup, but I recommend the kind described here.
Soba is also boiled as usual, chilled in cold water, and then drained. The soba is served on a bamboo mat, covered with a light sprinkling of seaweed. A small cup of a dipping sauce is on the side. The dipping sauce contains sweetened soy sauce; a rice wine for cooking called mirin, which may have a very low alcohol content; and a Japanese soup stock called dashi. Wasabi and chopped green scallions are served on the side. Diners add the wasabi and the green onions a little at a time to the sauce and mix as they like. Then diners eat the noodles, dipping them into the sauce bite by bite before eating them. Due to the strong smell and taste of hot soba, some people prefer cold soba year round.
Cold udon is also boiled as usual, chilled in cold water, and then drained. Like zaru soba, cold udon is served with the dipping sauce described for soba. The cold udon may also be covered with a topping such as seaweed. When I eat cold udon, I find that lower quality udon made in a food factory can become rubbery and chewy after boiling and chilling, which is a problem I never see with higher quality handmade udon. While I find the former worth avoiding and the latter a cool delicious summertime meal, some Japanese would disagree with me. Literal translation of the Japanese expression “koshi ga aru” means “there is a waist.” This expression, when used to refer to cold udon means that the noodles are chewy. In Japan, this is positive. Maybe this is an acquired taste. If so, I have not yet eaten enough cold udon to acquire it.
All three of these well-liked noodles can be tasty summertime food. If you have never tried them, I heartily recommend them. If you try them and don’t like them, you may not be used to them. If you don’t like them, I suggest you try these noodles again in a few different restaurants just to be sure.
Author: Tom Aaron
Aaron Language Services is on the web at www.aaronlanguage.com
We provide Japanese to English translation, English proofreading, and online English coaching to a primarily Japanese client base.