If you’ve ever been to Japan before, you’d have noticed right away that there are all sorts of noodle shops wherever you go. Ramen, udon, and soba are among the most popular Japanese noodle dishes, and while the variety of tastes and textures is commonplace for the Japanese - for tourists, the differences may not be so immediately obvious.
Everyone and their mom knows about ramen, so today we’ve decided to break down the two other most popular (and most underappreciated abroad) noodles of Japan, udon and soba!
Soba - Traditionally Iconic
Soba is made from buckwheat flour - which gives it an iconic light-brown color, firm texture, and rich, nutty flavor. It's very nutritious compared to other varieties of noodles, and typically, soba is also naturally gluten-free. Some restaurants will also add wheat flour to their soba to help improve it’s texture, so if you have gluten allergies, it’s best to check with restaurant staff before you order!
Some like it hot; some like it cold...
You can enjoy soba hot or cold, depending on the season and personal preferences.
Cold soba is a refreshingly light meal that is widely enjoyed during the super-humid summer months in Japan. After being cooked, the noodles are immediately “shocked” in ice water, drained, and then served up alongside a complex dipping sauce called tsuyu (つゆ). Complex in flavor and depth, tsuyu is often served with finely sliced green onion and fresh wasabi to mix in according to your preference. Cold soba is also often served with different types of fresh tempura - crispy battered and deep fried vegetables and proteins.
During the winter, hot soba soup is the perfect alternative! Served in a deep bowl with a light soup, hot soba has a ton of different varieties. There’s tensoba, a simple hot soup served up with tempura on top. Then there’s tororo soba, which is topped with ooey-gooey grated mountain yam on top, giving it an added textural component. There’s also the iconic tsukimi soba - literally meaning “moon viewing soba” in Japanese - that earns its name by being topped off with a freshly poached egg.
Udon, enjoyable by everyone
Udon has been a long time favorite of Japanese locals as well. Unlike soba, udon has a much thicker and chewy texture. Made from wheat flour - it has a glossy, pure white color. Less flavorful than soba, udon is perfect for sucking up the broth it’s served in, and is well known for being easy on the stomach.
The Versatile Varieties of Udon...
The most common way to enjoy udon is kake udon, a soup made from a simple combination of soy and dashi - a common Japanese fish stock. This is a super simple and comforting dish perfect for when you’re not feeling well, or just craving a warm bowl of soup on a cold day!
While soba dishes tend to focus on the flavor of the noodles themselves, udon acts as more of a flavor delivery vehicle - opening up a ton of opportunities for creative twists!
One of the most popular takes on udon in Japan is curry udon! Since udon noodles are thick and starchy, the curry sauce can easily cling to the noodles. Udon is also really delicious when stir fried along with meats and other vegetables, and is also often served with nabe - Japanese style hotpot to help fill you up with the meat and veggies are done.
So which ramen rival do you like the most? When it comes to the battle of the noodle bowls, everyone’s a winner in our book! Of course, you’re never far away from a bowl of great noodles anywhere in Japan, so at the end of the day, there’s plenty of opportunities to give both a try and see for yourself!
Do you have a favorite noodle spot you think we should know about? Did we totally ignore your favorite dish? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to tag us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with your delicious noodle pics! We can’t wait to see what you guys try next!