Good Grains: Soba

Back2Life
5 min readAug 21, 2022

Noodles that are good to you.

As we start heading into the fall season, we’re going to deal with oscillating days of hot and cold. Why not have a noodle that can be served both ways? Let’s take a look at soba (‘そば/ ‘蕎麦’) — one of the classic options within the Japanese noodle repertoire!

History & Health

Despite having “wheat” in its name, soba is not actually wheat or even a true grain. Grains technically have to come from a “grass”, and so scientists have classified soba to be “pseudo-cereal”.

Whatever the scientific status, the soba grain’s place within Japanese cuisine began even before humans even had a concept of nationhood.

According to research from 2018, “it is now broadly accepted that common buckwheat plant was initially domesticated in the northwest part of the Yunnan province in China”. This grain later travelled and spread throughout the Asian continent either through the Himalayas, or into Japan through Northern China during the prehistoric period called the Jōmon jidai (14,000–300 BCE).

Photo: Google Arts & Culture

Further evidence of its use was found during the Nara period during the 6th century CE, where modern-day Nara became the seat of power thanks to Empress Genmei — the fourth woman to take on the role of empress regnant.

However, it wasn’t until the famed Edo period (1603–1867 CE) that the most famous iteration of soba — the noodle — entered Japanese society. As we discussed in our somen article, the buddhist monks were at it again with their noodle making skills by feeding themselves wholesome, cruelty-free food. As popularity and religion grew, the noodle making “business” expanded with the demand. (via 50 Best)

Google Arts & Culture also attributed the growth of soba during that period to travelling soba noodle vendors who sold bowls of soup during the late nights and festivals! Click the link above to check out a fantastic presentation about soba noodles with Ukiyo-e artwork!

There, Their, They’re: When we say soba in this article, we mean “buckwheat”. But what is the difference between the grain and the noodle? Well in common vernacular — there is no difference. Even other non-buckwheat based noodles, like those for Yakisoba, are called soba as well! Check out the ingredients on the backs of packages to know which is which or look in the display windows of restaurants to know what they serve!

Buckwheat is as historic as it is healthy! This seed is a great option when you’re looking to change up carb intake. In this post by WebMD, they discuss how eating buckwheat can help the health of a multitude of symptoms in our bodies.

Photo: Sonoma Magazine

For example, digestive health. This fibre rich grain helps prevent constipation and promote regularity in regards to bowel movements. The high fibre content also means good news for those looking to improve their cholesterol levels as a high fibre diet can reduce the amount of cholesterol absorption during digestion. (via Mayo Clinic)

Otherwise, you can expect to support your circulatory system as well. Also found in apples and oranges, rutin is a flavonoid that supports healthy blood vessels by assisting in their flexibility and strength.

Now that you know all about the past and present goodies, let’s look at the types of soba you’ll find on your trip to Japan and even at your local grocers’!

Send Noods

The most common soba noodle you’ll find in Japan and abroad is the ‘Nihachi’ (二八) soba. “Nihachi” literally means ‘two eight’, which indicates the flour ratio within the noodle — two parts wheat flour to eight parts buckwheat flour.

This is the soba that you’ll find in most of your non-Asian grocery stores. This is the soba that you’ve probably already had. And for good reason: it’s one of the most versatile!

With the wheat and soba melange, you:

  1. Don’t have to worry about them falling apart too much
  2. Get the taste of buckwheat without being overwhelmed
  3. Can substitute them in many different recipes traditionally made with other types of noodles or pasta

So don’t worry about being ‘basic’ — here it means versatility!

Another super popular kind of soba noodle is ‘Juwari’ or ‘Towari’ (十割). Yes, they are the same thing; yes, they have two names.

This type is made out of 100% buckwheat flour and is the only gluten free option on this list. Being 100% buckwheat, they use hot water to create one homogenous dough instead of a binding additive. The noodles will be more delicate and easier to break without the wheat flour, but what you will get is a hearty, earthy, nutty flavour that will give you the pure, unadulterated experience of excellent soba craftsmanship with no fat or cholesterol.

Warning: We’ve read some online articles stating that soba noodles are naturally gluten free — THEY ARE NOT. Unless labelled ‘juwari’ or ‘gluten free’, please do not eat soba noodles if you have gluten allergies like celiac disease.

If you like the sound of the more robust noodle, you can also try some ‘Inaka’ (田舎) soba — also known as ‘country soba’. This style of noodle uses the whole grain of the buckwheat milled into a powder before being formed. As such, you will get a more rustic, thick strand with a nice, chewy texture and a buckwheat-forward taste.

Lastly, ‘Sarashina’ (更科)soba would be perfect for those who like a lighter touch — more similar to their all-wheat cousin: somen. According to Umami Insider, sarashina-style means it is not made with the high percentage soba flour like the others and primarily uses just the middle of the grain (‘endosperm’) for its buckwheat starch. Expect a lighter, whiter noodle that gives off a refreshing aspect to your noodle dish.

When picking out soba at the store, don’t feel overwhelmed! Use the kanji provided in the article to find the version you like; or just take a stab at it! We just recommend picking up a pack that’s been imported from Japan or made locally by a Japanese soba artisan. If you’re still unsure, just pick the pack with your favourite design!

Next up: babies! In Japan, we have a ceremony marking the 100th day after the baby is born. Get to know some unique traditions, food combinations, and cute costumes that they wear! In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more fun facts, photos, and tidbits!

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Back2Life

Promoting global Food Education, Sustainability, and Traditions for our Modern World. Based in Tokyo, Japan.