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Substituting for Soba Noodles

by Elizabeth Skipper | March 10th, 2015 | Ask the Chef
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soba noodle dish (400x400)I have a recipe that calls for soba noodles to be served with salmon for an Asian dish.  If I can’t find soba noodles, could I use a different sort of noodle or pasta, or would that affect the final product?

How much of a purist are you? Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour and both taste and look different from all-wheat noodles. Thin and brownish-gray in color, they’re associated with Tokyo and northern Japan, while wheat noodles are associated with Osaka and southern Japan. There’s also an interesting variant called cha-soba, made with the addition of green tea powder.  

While some soba is made with 100% buckwheat, these noodles tend to be brittle, so most contain wheat flour as well. The wheat gluten gives the dough more strength and makes it easier to work with. I’ve found both kinds in quite a few health food stores, and you can always find the blended ones in Asian markets. The all-buckwheat ones cost more, probably both because the flour is more expensive and they’re trickier to make.

In Japan, noodles are often eaten by themselves as a main dish. Cold, they’re served with a dipping sauce alongside; warm, they’re served in broth, often with a substantial garnish. However, the flavor of the noodle itself is important. While here in the States, we often over-sauce our pasta to the point where its own flavor is irrelevant, in Japan (as in Italy), one expects to taste the noodle itself. So if you want your dish to taste as Japanese as possible, search out soba. All-buckwheat soba has a more pronounced taste than the blended kinds. It’s difficult to describe, but “earthy” or “nutty” will give you an idea.

If there are lots of other flavors in the dish, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. You could try using an alternative pasta such as regular or whole wheat spaghetti. If you do opt for the real thing, be sure to check out the cooking directions I give in this week’s recipe. The Japanese have a different method for cooking their noodles, which minimizes the starch that’s left behind. This is especially important when eating soba cold with a dipping sauce.

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