Ask a Japanese person to think of popular street foods, and many of them will answer yakisoba (Japanese stir-fried noodles). And it’s definitely earned its place in that spot by being both delicious and light enough to enjoy with other street foods. Today, let’s learn more about this iconic Japanese festival food favorite, including its origin and other dishes that feature this dish.
Yakisoba translates directly to fried noodle, which isn’t wrong. However, more specifically, it’s a Japanese stir-fried noodle dish, often including a special sauce, vegetables, and some kind of protein. The toppings can actually vary based on the season and location, but more on that later!
Although yakisoba is a well-known Japanese dish, it’s actually one of the dishes adapted from Chinese dishes for the Japanese palette. In fact, many people compare this dish to chow mein because of how similar it is.
Where exactly it came from isn’t completely clear, but its peak in popularity is. Back in the 1930s, Asakusa became popular for its “sauce yakisoba”. Also, towards the end of the Taisho and the beginning of the Showa Era, stalls selling dondonyaki (a savory rolled Japanese pancake) actually started selling yakisoba as well.
Before World War 2, it became a typical light meal or snack. After the war, the ‘60s and ‘70s saw an even bigger boom with instant and cup noodle versions of the dish releasing in that time.
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Looking at the name, you would think soba noodles (Japanese buckwheat noodles) would be the standard main ingredient. Although soba noodles are commonly used, the standard is actually to use Chinese wheat noodles made with wheat flour, similar to ramen noodles. In fact, this type of noodle is called chuuka soba, meaning Chinese soba noodles. A variation of this dish from the Kitakyushu or Kokura areas of Fukuoka prefecture uses udon noodles (thick Japanese wheat noodles), earning it the name yaki udon.
This dish is actually easy to make but hard to perfect in terms of flavor. Yakisoba noodles (Chinese or soba) are boiled first to soften the noodles, while vegetables and protein are stir-fried. The noodles are added to the vegetables and protein to cook for a short time, since it’s already been boiled.
Finally, a special sauce with a slight sweetness is added for the last bit of cooking so the noodles can absorb the sauce. This special sauce is often compared to Worcestershire sauce, but it’s a bit thicker and has a slightly different taste thanks to soy, garlic, and brown sugar. The sauce is easy to get as you can find it in most grocery stores in Japan, or Asian markets.
While the average person may use a pan to create this dish, the true experience involves a flat iron pan, making this dish a part of the teppanyaki (food cooked on an iron griddle) category.
Vegetables, toppings, and condiments can vary based on the season, location, and the shop itself. Common vegetables include thinly sliced onions, cabbage, and carrots. Japanese green peppers are also common, but many shops opt to leave them out since it can be a polarizing vegetable in Japan.
Protein can also vary with the most common protein being thinly sliced pork or chicken. However, if you head to Okinawa, you may get sliced ham or even fried spam in your yakisoba. In fact, Okinawa actually uses its own thicker Okinawa soba for this dish.
Toppings, in general, are also pretty varied. Red pickled ginger is a common topping, usually put on the side for those who may not like pickles. Seaweed powder and katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes) are also common toppings that add to the Japanese flavor. And of course, Japan loves mayonnaise, so mayo is a common final topping for yakisoba, adding a bit of creaminess to the dish.
Many of us may not consider noodles to be street food, but with its origins in food stalls, yakisoba is a street food through and through.
The most common place to find this dish is at one of Japan’s many festivals where it’s almost guaranteed to show up. Whether it’s Hanami festivals (cherry blossom festivals), summer festivals, or local festivals, carts and stalls will be there with the vendors making it fresh on their iron grills. In fact, they may have multiple vendors with multiple stalls, so you can try out several variations of this popular festival food in one place.
Outside of festivals, you may be able to find food carts in different areas selling the dish in various locations depending on the day or time of day. Areas like Osaka, where street food rules the food scene, commonly have carts like this.
If you’re really down bad for some of these noodles, you can always head to a supermarket’s ready-made food section or a convenience store. Among the box sets, you’ll always find yakisoba waiting to be popped into a microwave for you to enjoy.
The last option is to make it yourself. A very basic sauce can actually be made with ingredients like Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, ketchup, and sugar. All you would need to worry about after that are the other ingredients, usually available in your local supermarket or local Asian market.
Of course you can enjoy this tasty noodle dish on its own, but there are other dishes where yakisoba takes a more complementary role in an overall dish.
Yakisoba-pan is a popular dish featuring these iconic noodles placed inside of a bread roll, making a noodle sandwich. This sandwich can be found all over Japan in Japanese school lunches, convenience stores, and supermarket bread sections or bakeries. It is often garnished with red pickles to add some crunch and a bit of extra flavor.
We all know okonomiyaki as Japan’s savory take on the pancake, with different fillings that pack it with umami (savory) flavor.
However, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki adds a spin to the usual recipe and even more flavor with the inclusion of yakisoba. The dough is poured onto the iron griddle first in a thinner layer than usual, making the final product thin like an omelet. Then, vegetables like cabbage, bean sprouts, and scallions are put there to cook.
Next, pork belly is layered on as well to cook. After that, you add the noodles, which is one of the unique points of this dish. Last, the dish is topped with an egg to steam over the other ingredients.
The order can depend on the restaurant too, with some restaurants flipping the pancake between the veggie meat and noodle step. In this case, it’s finished by cooking the egg on the griddle and flipping the pancake onto the egg. Last, once the egg is cooked, it’s flipped a third time, garnished, and served.
Have a hankering for some noodles? What’s your favorite street food? Let us know in the comments below!
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