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Soba (そば or 蕎麦?) is the Japanese name for buckwheat. It is synonymous with a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour, and in Japan can refer to any thin noodle (unlike thick wheat noodles, known as udon). Soba noodles are served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup. It takes three months for buckwheat to be ready for harvest, so it can be harvested four times a year, mainly in spring, summer, and autumn. In Japan, buckwheat is produced mainly in Hokkaido. Soba that is made with newly harvested buckwheat is called "shin-soba". It is sweeter and more flavorful than regular soba.
In Japan, soba noodles are served in a variety of settings: they are a popular inexpensive fast food at railway stations throughout Japan, but are also served by expensive specialty restaurants. Markets sell dried noodles and men-tsuyu, or instant noodle broth, to make home preparation easy.
Some establishments, especially cheaper and more casual ones, may serve both soba and udon as they are often served in a similar manner. Soba is the traditional noodle of choice for Tokyoites. This tradition originates from the Tokugawa period, when the population of Edo (Tokyo), being considerably wealthier than the rural poor, were more susceptible to beri beri due to their high consumption of white rice, which is low in thiamine. It was discovered that beri beri could be prevented by regularly eating thiamine-rich soba. In the Tokugawa era, every neighborhood had one or two soba establishments, many also serving sake, which functioned much like modern cafes where locals would stop for a casual meal.
Soba is typically eaten with chopsticks, and in Japan, it is considered acceptable to slurp the noodles noisily. This is especially common with hot noodles, as drawing up the noodles quickly into the mouth helps cool them. However, quiet consumption of noodles is no longer uncommon.
Like many Japanese noodles, soba noodles are often served drained and chilled in the summer, and hot in the winter with a soy-based dashi broth. Extra toppings can be added to both hot and cold soba. Toppings are chosen to reflect the seasons and to balance with other ingredients. Most toppings are added without much cooking, although some are deep-fried. Most of these dishes may also be prepared with udon.
Chilled soba is often served on a sieve-like bamboo tray called a zaru, sometimes garnished with bits of dried nori seaweed, with a dipping sauce known as soba tsuyu on the side. The tsuyu is made of a strong mixture of dashi, sweetened soy sauce (also called "satōjōyu") and mirin. Using chopsticks, the diner picks up a small amount of soba from the tray and swirls it in the cold tsuyu before eating it. Wasabi and scallions are often mixed into the tsuyu. Many people think that the best way to experience the unique texture of hand-made soba noodles is to eat them cold, since letting them soak in hot broth changes their consistency. After the noodles are eaten, many people enjoy drinking the water in which the noodles were cooked (sobayu), mixed with the leftover tsuyu.
Soba is also often served as a noodle soup in a bowl of hot tsuyu. The hot tsuyu in this instance is thinner than that used as a dipping sauce for chilled soba. Popular garnishes are sliced scallion and shichimi togarashi (mixed chilli powder).
Soba is traditionally eaten on New Year's Eve in most areas of Japan, a tradition that survives to this day: Toshikoshi soba. In the Tokyo area, there is also a tradition of giving out soba to new neighbours after a house move (Hikkoshi soba), although this practice is now rare.
Soba contains a type of polysaccharide that is easily digested. Soba noodles also contain antioxidants, including rutin and quercetin, and essential nutrients including choline, thiamine and riboflavin.
The most famous Japanese soba noodles come from Nagano. Soba from Nagano is called Shinano Soba or Shinshu soba. Ni-hachi (二八, two-eight) soba, consists of two parts of wheat and eight of buckwheat; Juwari (十割, 100%) soba, the finest (and usually most expensive) variety, consists entirely of buckwheat.
Soba is also the Japanese word for buckwheat. Roasted buckwheat kernels may be made into a grain tea called sobacha, which may be served hot or cold. Buckwheat hulls, or sobakawa (also called sobagara), are used to fill pillows. Sometimes, beers are made with roasted buckwheat added as a flavoring, and called "soba ale".
Soba is occasionally used to refer to noodles in general. In Japan, ramen is traditionally called chūka soba (中華そば) or, before the end of the Second World War, shina soba (支那そば). Both of these mean "Chinese noodles", though the word shina was replaced by chūka because the Chinese considered the former term offensive. Parboiled chūka soba is stir-fried to make yakisoba. Note that these noodles do not contain buckwheat.
In Okinawa, soba usually refers to Okinawa soba, a completely different dish of noodles made out of flour, not buckwheat. Okinawa soba is also quite popular in the city of Campo Grande (Brazil), due to influence of Japanese (Okinawan) immigrants. It is eaten at street markets or in special restaurants called "sobarias".
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