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Soba/buckwheat noodles (Recipe: asparagus-cashew stir fry) {vegetarian}


So there we were -- Ted, his sister Jill, my cousin Martin and me -- huddled in the kitchen in my friend Rika's house, in the small village of Mihama on the west coast of Japan, in the middle of winter, drinking sake to stay warm, and learning how to make soba.

It was our second visit to Japan, February 1997, windy and snowing, cold beyond cold. We had come to Mihama after a couple of weeks of traveling in Vietnam, where it was hot beyond hot, and our bodies were having adjustment issues. Rika's house sits right on the beach; except for the kitchen, the rooms are heated only by space heaters, so even without the promise of a cooking lesson, we'd still have gravitated towards the only room that had both heat and food.

According to the traditions of the village, which is home to 50 families, property passes from oldest son to oldest son, and so Rika's husband, Ichiro, came to own the house, a fishing boat, and the fields that supply his family with rice and vegetables. Ichiro teaches at an agricultural high school, where students learn about all aspects of the growing cycle, including cooking, and he is quite a good cook, too.

Soba are thin, spaghetti-like noodles made of buckwheat flour which, because it doesn't bind well, is often combined with wheat flour. According to Japanese agricultural regulations, soba must contain at least 30 percent buckwheat; the higher the buckwheat content, the better the noodles, and the nuttier the flavor.

Starting with the buckwheat flour, water, and a small amount of white flour, Ichiro taught us to mix and knead and roll the dough, and then to cut the noodles by hand. While the noodles air-dried for a few minutes, Rika mixed a traditional dipping sauce, a combination of dashi, mirin, and soy. (She also showed us some storebought sauce she had in the fridge; though they revere the traditional, busy moms in rural Japan also embrace convenience foods.)

Soba is served hot or cold, and combines well with steak or salmon, in soup, and in salads of all persuasions.

Traditionally eaten to celebrate the new year, and delicious all year round, soba (which is almost always sold in dried form) comes in all price ranges, correlating directly to the amount of buckwheat in the noodles. The ones in my pantry at the moment are fairly inexpensive; buckwheat is the second ingredient listed, after enriched wheat flour. This brand also includes yam flour, which enhances the taste as well as the binding ability. If you're eating gluten-free, look for 100% buckwheat noodles; they do exist, but they are quite delicate, and expensive.

At Rika's house, we ate our soba at room temperature; we were too impatient to wait to taste the fruits of our labor. We wrangled the slippery noodles with chopsticks, dipped them in the sauce, and slurped -- which, fortunately, is considered polite, as it was our only option!

Ten years later, if I close my eyes, I can recall the taste of that soba, made in a dear friend's kitchen so far away.

Asparagus-cashew stir fry

I love recipes with a pedigree. This one came to our Wednesday Lunch cooking group from Marcia, who got it from her friend Roseanne, who adapted it from a cookbook. Serves 4 as a main dish; can be doubled.


For the sauce:
3 Tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp cornstarch or arrowroot
1-1/2 cups water or vegetable stock
1 Tbsp minced ginger root
1 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
Dash of white pepper

2 Tbsp canola or safflower oil
1 lb fresh asparagus, woody parts of stems removed, tender part cut into 3-inch lengths (about 3 cups)
4 scallions, chopped
1 small sweet red pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup cashews, dry-roasted and unsalted

1 lb soba noodles, prepared according to package directions


In a small bowl, combine soy sauce and cornstarch. Stir in remaining sauce ingredients; set aside.

In a wok or large skillet, heat oil. Stir-fry asparagus, scallions, pepper, and garlic until vegetables are crisp-tender. Stir sauce mixture; pour it over the vegetables and stir until it is thickened and bubbly. Fold in cashews. Reduce heat, cover, and cook for 1 minute, until cashews are heated through.

Serve over soba noodles.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

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i love soba, in fact we had them last night under some fish curry that i'll post soon as i write it up. sobas wharn they are still a little chewy are the best don't you think?

What a great experience for you! I read about soba making from a book and decided to make some with 100% buckwheat, completely undaunted by the low gluten factor. I had something dimly resembling chunky earthworms in broth, since then I stick to bought.

Lydia, what a great post! I have a book on Soba Noodles, and the author said the most common ratio for buckwheat:wheat flour is 80:20.

I have planned to try making soba at home, but haven't found the time (or the urge) as yet!

Aria, I do love soba when it's a bit chewy, but not falling apart. Will look forward to your fish curry recipe.

Callipygia, I'm laughing at the earthworm image -- but I know just what you mean!

Anh, I wish that when I buy soba in the market, that the percentage of buckwheat flour was marked on the package. I haven't made soba since this visit to Japan -- I definitely stick to the storebought.

You reminded me I definitely need to buy some soba next time I go to the Asian grocery store. Do you have a recipe for the dipping sauce?

oh I LOVE soba noodles. and thanks for the explanation, I never understood why the price varied so much

Ahh, authenticity and pedigree, both in the same post!

I have tried soba noodles, but they weren't my thing. Your recipe sounds fab though, and I could always use other noodles!

You must be a mind-reader, Lydia. I was just thinking that I should learn something about soba noodles, and try them. I have seen them so many times in the store. Your recipe sounds awesome. I need to try it!

Amy, I'm not much of a measurer, so here's a recipe that's close to what we made in Japan:

Lobstersquad, I really love the nutty flavor of soba, but I'm not sure I can really tell the difference between soba with white flour and soba without -- except by the price.

Alanna, thanks!

Kelly-Jane, you could definitely do this topping with other noodles -- any kind of pasta, or spinach linguine, or truffle pasta if you can find it.

Nupur, I think the flavor of soba might work well with some of your wonderful Indian recipes.

Lydia, that's perfect. Thank you!

I love soba and the beautifully elegant and formal way the Japanese bundle up their noodles. Such reverence and practical portion control.

What an interesting post, I have always wanted to visit Japan and I love the story you shared in this entry. :)

Amy, you're most welcome!

Susan, I love the Japanese aesthetic in all things. When Rika and Ichiro and their children came to visit us last summer, I asked her to bring me as many furoshiki (the cloths used for wrapping packages) as she could carry! They are so beautiful.

Ari, thank you so much.

both the story and recipe are magical- thanks lydia

Hi Lydia,
Having lived in Kyoto for a year myself, I can just imagine this wonderful scene. Thanks so much for sharing, it really brings back memories. I LOVE soba! Every time I went to Tokyo I would stop by this little sobaya in Shinjuku and get a big plate of zaru soba - you know the cold soba with the quail egg, nori, and dipping sauce. I think this is one of my favorite foods in the whole world. So refreshing. And you got to make soba from scratch! Amazing. It must have been so good.

Thank you for that recipe! I like soba very much and I think I could get my husband to eat it fixed that way! :):)

Shawn, thank you.

Elise, I'd never had the zaru soba until we went to Japan, and of course I fell in love with it. The experience of making soba in my friend's kitchen is something I will never forget.

Sher, the asparagus-cashew topping is so good that he might not even notice the buckwheat noodles!

Here's a puzzle: "Organic Planet Soba" from Great Eastern Sun (super authentic folks) lists 'organic sifted wheat flour' ONLY for ingredients...product of China! Lydia, you might look for a wonderful book called "How to Wrap Five Eggs" about traditional Japanese packaging. I'll try the recipe with my non-authentic soba -- it sounds so good!

Susan, they must mean buckwheat flour?! Sometimes when things get translated into English for purposes of packing in the US, the translations can be...perplexing! I will definitely look for this book -- I'm absolutely in love with the Japanese packaging aesthetic. Thank you!!

haha, I just had some cold sesame soba noodle salad, speak of the devil :) Wow, it is 10 years ago since your last visit to Japan yeah ? I'm curious, what's your top 5 favorite food there ? :)

MW, that's a tough question -- 5 favorite foods in Japan. But I can tell you some of my favorite food experiences, in addition to making soba: eating a huge bowl of udon noodles in broth at a roadside "cafe" with Rika and her two daughters (who were then 4 and 5 yrs old); sampling my first takoyaki (which I liked, despite not liking octopus); a traditional kaiseki meal at a ryokan in the Fuji National Park; and my favorite, a family meal prepared for us by Rika's entire family (parents, sister, sister-in-law, etc.).

That sounds really fun. You don't need to travel to Japan to enjoy all those food. Luckily, you can re-create all that right at perfect pantry's kichen :) My god, Lydia, I've just had Takoyaki the other day...ahaha :) I know right, when you wrapped the light batter mix with the chunky octopus and deep-fried, it is so so delicious. A friend of mine (who don't care for squids/octopus) actually liked them very much. I'm wondering if the traditional T/balls used mayo + worcestershire sauce ? haha..They often do that here at the Japanese restaurants. Aww..you've to post your takoyaki recipe :)

MW, the takoyaki I had in Japan definitely did not have mayo! I've never made it, but I can still remember what it tasted like, and the little roadside stand where we bought it. At the time, I didn't know it was octopus -- it looked like a Rhode Island clam cake! And it tasted very much the same, too.

Hello Lydia
I am living in rural Western Australia and I am seaching for a recepi to make my own soba/buckwheat noodles. I love buckwheat, I have lots of buckwheat flour but don't know how to make them. I can not buy buckwheat noodles either. Please help me to make them.


I just bought some Soba Buckwheat noodles because it said that it had 75g of protien per serving. 10g of fat and 19g of fiber... 0 carbs and 290 cal.
I was really just blown away by the amount of protien...could this be true?

Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
75 grams protein = 300 calories
Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
10 grams fat = 90 calories
Total calories as listed: 390.
Total calories listed on label: 290

Flaw in whose arithmetic?

Any truth, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I think the label must be an error -- more likely 7.5g of protein, which is more consistent with the nutrition labeling on several of the soba packages I have here (which range from 5.8g to 7.8g, depending on whether they are zaru soba, with yam). So it would be more like 120 calories per 2 ounce serving.

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