Sushi and ramen are currently the two most popular Japanese foods in the U.S. But we may be missing out on something: soba, or buckwheat noodles.
In Japan, there are 18,833 soba shops and 24,257 ramen eateries as of 2021. However, it does not mean that soba is less popular than ramen.
A survey shows that 42% of 2,500 respondents eat soba at least once a week. On the other hand, only 24% of 4,042 subjects in another survey eat ramen once a week.
As for sushi, 37% of 20,000 respondents eat sushi once a month, 22% say every 2-3 months and 21% only once every 6 months.
In other words, Japanese people eat soba far more often than ramen or sushi.
Why do Japanese people like soba so much?
There are plenty of good reasons, according to Yoshinori Horii, the ninth-generation soba maker and owner of Sarashina Horii in Tokyo.
His restaurant dates back to 1789, the year George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the U.S. His family has served its soba noodles to the Shoguns and the Emperors. He recently opened his first overseas location in New York to introduce the Japanese quintessential food to a global audience.
“Soba is delicious. These simple noodles are the best canvas to showcase the umami of dashi, the traditional Japanese-style stock,” says Horii.
That canvas—the noodles themselves have special qualities too. Superior noodles are made by highly skilled craftsmen who pursue the perfect flavor expression of the grains as well as balanced chewiness and smoothness of the dough, just as sushi chefs strive for. Also, each soba chef develops his/her own unique recipes of stock and toppings as ramen chefs do.
It is hard to eat a hearty bowl of ramen every day, but you can easily slurp down soba for its refreshing lightness. If you have been to Japan, you may have seen one of those standing-style soba shops equipped with a vending machine at many train stations where people have a quick bowl before jumping onto the next train.
The Japanese don’t seem to eat soba because it is good for you, but the noodles have been strongly associated with their health benefits.
According to Horii, buckwheat contains 2.5 times more essential amino acids than wheat, which are necessary for various foundational aspects of our body such as building muscles, maintaining immune functions and metabolism.
The glycemic index indicates how a certain food will cause your blood sugar levels to rise (thus the lower the better) and buckwheat’s value is 50 compared to white wheat flour’s 85.
Buckwheat is also known for containing a large amount of rutin, which is a powerful antioxidant to prevent various symptoms from aging skin, high blood pressure, stroke to cancer.
There was a famous episode about how soba saved the Japanese people from beri beri during the Edo period. Beri beri is caused by vitamin B1 deficiency and when refined rice became widely available in the market, many people started to have the disease because they no longer had the benefits of B1-rich brown rice. Then people realized that they could heal themselves by eating buckwheat. As a result, soba became even more popular.
Also, buckwheat is gluten-free and it is a great alternative for those unable to consume wheat. It is important to note, however, that the standard soba noodles are made of 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat to make the dough easier to handle with a little bit of gluten from wheat. But there is 100% buckwheat soba called towari soba, which is fairly easily available.
Can Soba Be The Next Ramen?
Before Horii opened Sarashina Horii in the Flatiron District in July 2021, New York already had had notable soba restaurants.
The legendary Honmura An in SOHO opened in 1991 and earned a three-star rating from The New York Times
The famed chef/entrepreneur Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Matsugen in Tribe
Sounds like there is the potential for soba to be more widely popular in New York.
Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu made sushi cool and stylish and David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar created a ramen boom in the U.S. Mild and composed Yoshinori Horii may not become a sensational TV figure to lead a new soba boom, but his background cannot be more authentic and his soba-making philosophy is worth paying attention to.
Horii’s family has been known for a style of soba called sarashina. Buckwheat has a subtle earthiness that some people love or not so much. If you like other buckwheat dishes like blinis that accompany premium caviar or traditional French crepes called galettes from Brittany, you are part of the former. The latter group of people would love sarashina.
Sarashina is made using only the very core of the buckwheat seeds. The husk of the seed is milled down to remove the earthiness of the grains. The resulting noodles are pearly white and have a delicate, sweeter taste than regular soba noodles. Its distinctively smooth texture is also what people adore about sarashina.
But Horii likes other styles of soba as well and serves them at his restaurant. “All soba noodles are fantastic and each style has a distinctive charm for specific reasons,” he says. For example, sunaba-style soba used to be delivered to sweaty construction workers who preferred a saltier, bolder taste in their soup. On the other hand, sarashina was served to the upper-class citizens at their fancy residences. That’s why sarashina’s soup is lighter even to this day.
The ninth generation Horii grew up with no plans to carry on the family tradition. He graduated from a top university in Japan and had many corporate career options.
But he found a mission in soba.
“My grandfather and the seventh generation of our family business was very successful and enjoyed the well-deserved flamboyant lifestyle. But when the Great Depression hit Japan, he was forced to close shop,” says Horii. But his father wanted to revive the business with a focus on the traditional, highest-quality handmade soba that his family used to make. The young Horii decided to join his father at 23 and now successfully runs three restaurants in Tokyo.
He believes that the family business has continued for the last 233 years because it has been flexibly evolving. “For example, the wife of the 6th generation worked with a milling factory and elevated the milling rate of the grains to produce the purely white, modern-style sarashina 100 years ago. It was a surprising innovation back then.”
Horii keeps experimenting with new things just like his ancestors—for instance, he has been actively searching for superior, sustainable producers for his soba’s toppings like a special salmon that is farmed in unadulterated water from the surrounding mountains in Kagoshima or heirloom pork from Okinawa; he is developing novel recipes like a risotto-style buckwheat dish that is more approachable for non-Japanese diners.
“When I started to rebuild our business with my father, there was no way to compete with bigger soba restaurants. I just had to keep learning by kneading the dough and knowing what “great soba” was. I visited every reputable soba shop and made sure that ours tasted better than anyone else’s.”
38 years later, his passion and focus are still intact. Let’s see how he advances the soba culture in New York.