SOBA & UDON
Lickety-split. That describes Japans most popular fast food-noodles-served in seconds and devoured with its tasty topping and garnish, all in a zesty broth. The slippery al-dente strands have a clean, refreshing texture unheard of in the Western noodle!
Some cut-rate soba shops around Japan's train stations don't even have seatscustomers merely stand at the counter as they eat. A curtain hanging at the entrance to the soba stall screens all but their legs and the gusto of their slurps. In the posher spots, however, noodle shops assume the appearance of a Zen retreat in the mountains and serve lumpy hand-beaten (te-uchi) buckwheat strands in rough-hewn bamboo frames, or zaru.
Soba (buckwheat noodles), and their Osaka cousin, the thick white wheat noodles, udon, are a warming meal in winter. In summer, soba chilled and dunked in a soy-base sauce laced with shaved yam, seaweed or even tempura flakes, is a light, cool snack.
History of Soba and NoodlesThe history of the noodle (both soba and udon) spans centuries and continents. Brought with Buddhism from China by Japan's first priests in the early ninth century, the noodle is believed also to have found its way in the 12th century to Europe, in Marco Polo's hands. The coarse and unrefined appearance of buckwheat noodles, in particular, appealed to the ascetic tastes of the Buddhists. One Zen sect temple in Asakusa became so rich and famous for its sale of the humble dish to Buddhist pilgrims, that in the 1780s it was forbidden to carry on the pecunious trade. Merchants took over the business and spread the buckwheat blessing among the populace.
The religious origin of soba restaurants is borne out by the fact that many of the high-class establishments, such as Rengyoku-an or Mansei-an of Tokyo, carry the suffix -an on their names, which means "hermitage." Thus the lowly noodle is purveyed by, on the one hand, the most plebeian, and on the other, by the most sublime sabi establishments.
The mental association between long noodles and long-lasting good luck gave rise to the custom of eating New Year's Eve noodles (toshi koshi soba.)