I speak of Yakisoba and Yakiudon, Japanese stir-fry dishes differentiated by whether the noodles are thin buckwheat (Soba) or thick wheat (Udon). The way I make them, people like them; but the names are a little misleading because the noodles are pretty well backgrounded. Herewith some illustrated recommendations; including exotic hand-imported ingredients.

Black Soba · Last September, during the expedition to Shimane for RubyWorld, we took a road trip that included a stop at a soba-specialist restaurant near Izumo, with a soba-specialties shop attached. I bought a package of the exotic-looking black variety that had been the meal’s centerpiece. Here’s one bundle, unpacked:

A roll of black Shimane soba

I don’t read Japanese, but on the other hand cooking soba isn’t rocket science. Except for, this stuff cooked way faster than I’m used to. It’s like pasta: boil briefly, stir regularly, and drench it when you take it out of the boiling water to keep it from turning into a gooey glob. Here’s how it came out:

Freshly-cooked black Shimane soba

I usually construct the udon variant, because West-coast supermarkets tend to stock nice little packages of cheap good soft fresh udon by “Mr. Noodle”, which takes a (boring) step out of the workflow.

Ingredients ·

  • Stirfry-able vegetables: carrots, mushrooms, red/green/yellow peppers, onions, garlic, snap peas. You probably have others you like.

  • Half a head of nice fresh cabbage.

  • Noodles, cooked briefly to remain chewy.

  • Meat: Something light-colored, as in chicken or pork. Tofu is fine too.

  • Sauce; more on this below.

Quantities and Proportions · The Japanese style, as you might expect from the name, emphasizes the noodles. I have made it that way, but these days I tend to bulk it up with veggies, the meat and noodles in a supporting role. Which probably puts it in line with the increasingly-mainstream carbs-are-the-root-of-all-evil thinking.

I’ve learned to chop up way more than seems reasonable; it cooks down quite a bit, and since it’s both light and tasty, people tend to shovel it down and beg for seconds and thirds.

Process · Everything takes a different amount of time to stir-fry, and you have to stage things accordingly. This is the order to cook them in, in my experience:

  1. Carrots, onions and garlic. Garlic must be crushed. You can be sloppy cutting up the onions because they cook down to nothing anyhow.

  2. Mushrooms and meat.

  3. Peppers and snap peas.

  4. Noodles, which have to be soft, either previously boiled or bought that way.

  5. Cabbage.

The first step is to chop everything up. I like to chop them into a bunch of different bowls, grouped by cooking time more or less as above.

Then you can start stir-frying. A well-seasoned cast-iron frying pan is just as good as a wok but holds a whole lot less; I wouldn’t be able to feed the four of us out of the ordinary family frying pan.

I like to do the carrots and onions and garlic, then add the mushrooms, and when those are about done, put them back in the bowl. Then I stir-fry the meat by itself to make sure it gets nicely browned, and dump it back into a bowl. Then the lightweight veggies get a minute or two by themselves, then the early-veggies bowl and the meat bowl go back in, then the noodles go in, then (within a few seconds) the sauce gets poured over, and once it all gets hot again the cabbage, then after less than a minute you’re done.

There are a few intermediate stages when you can stop stirring, but mostly it’s all very hands-on.

Sauce · It comes out of a bottle. Well, several bottles. Most people start with soya sauce, and I think some sort of honey-garlic sauce is really essential (eastern or western hemisphere, take your pick), then you can have some fun with whatever spices or Asian sauces appeal to you. For a while, we had a bottle of patriotic Canadian barbecue sauce in the fridge that claimed to be maple-flavored, of all things; it added very nicely to the flavor. Whatever you mix up, be generous with it: I make up a fair-sized soup-bowl full to drench down the stir-fry, and have discovered that it’s better to err on the side of too much than too little.

Then you need some hotness. This is a religious issue, and I tend to err on the side of mildness and put a bottle of extra-hot sauce on the table so that people who want to abuse their mucous membranes can crank it up as high as they want.

Pros and Cons · It’s delicious, nutritious, and (if you don’t overcook the vegetables) a treat for the eye (below are the supermarket udon not the black Shimane soba).

Yakiudon, ready to serve

On the other hand it’s not terribly easy or quick. For a family of four, I spend most of a half-hour just chopping. In an ideal world you could interleave the chopping and frying, but I’m not dextrous enough to arrange that.

And as for the glamorous black noodles, I think it was a mistake to toss them in with the stir-fry; they need to be the centerpiece of a small subtly-flavored dish just like they did it in the place near Izumo. I have enough left for one more try.


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From: Janne (Jan 11 2010, at 04:03)

You don't use actual soba noodles in yakisoba. The noodle you use is similar to ramen noodles (you can make a decent yakisoba from instant ramen noodles) and I doubt they contain any buckwheat at all. The name "soba" is sometimes simply used as a catch-all term for thin noodle.

So yes, using high-grade soba noodles in a stir-fry seems like a bit of a waste. :)


From: Marcelo Takeshi (Jan 11 2010, at 05:52)

I for one always use (sorry i dont know the english names for those) ground shyoga (its a slightly spicy root) and 'goma' oil (i think those are called sesame seed oil, but im not sure). As for the black soba, my family usually cooks it and mix with a light souce (almost a soup) based on soy sauce, sugar, sea weed, bonito flakes and water. You can also add (just before serving) green onions, ground shyoga and other seasonings.


From: John (Jan 11 2010, at 09:50)

"It’s like pasta: boil briefly, stir regularly, and drench it when you take it out of the boiling water to keep it from turning into a gooey glob."

Do what you want with your "noodles," but every time you rinse pasta after cooking it, an Italian grandmother's heart skips a beat.


From: Bryan Ogawa (Jan 11 2010, at 13:51)

Marcelo, by "shyoga" are you thinking of ginger? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger and scroll down a bit for some pictures, as well as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beni_sh%C5%8Dga for a picture of the red pickled kind.

By gomi oil, I'd also suspect sesame seed oil. Are the seeds themselves both white and black colored, depending?


From: Bryan Ogawa (Jan 11 2010, at 15:02)

Ahh... realized that Marcelo wrote goma, not gomi -- i'm almost entirely sure that is sesame seed oil, then.


From: Marcelo Takeshi (Jan 11 2010, at 19:49)

Yes its ginger and sesame seed. Ginger i actually knew, but had blanked out. I like grinding them just before using. If you're going to cook it (like in the yakisoba), you can add quite a lot, but if you're adding it to a regular soba, just a tiny bit will add enough flavor.


From: Mike (Jan 12 2010, at 08:47)

Why is all the low-brow Japanese stuff popular outside of Japan? Uniqlo, Muji, Beard Papa ... and yakisoba.

This is the quintessential festival food, made by unbathed junior yakuza types with a cig hanging out of their mouths on grungy grills in stands with no running water.

In Japan they sell entire thick volumes fill with various sauce recipes. But you'll never find a recipe for yakisoba sauce in them. You can't make it fresh, whatever it is. It comes in a bottle. Who knows what's in it. (Same with tonkatsu sauce. And the Chinese sauces like tenmenjan and tobanjan.)

Even if you always use bottled ketchup and mustard and barbecue sauce, in theory you can make them yourself, and the ingredients are documented in many cookbooks.


From: Andy K (Jan 14 2010, at 10:28)

Before we had a kid, we used to cut up veggies with a cool chef's knife (which we used without the dexterity of a chef). After our kid was born, we quickly bought a decent food processor that blends, slices, or grates each item in about 2 seconds. Now I just slice the veggies in order and do the cooking in parallel. The texture suffers a little, but that's a small price to pay.

PS: could you also put a comment link at the bottom of the comments list?

PPS: I got errors when submitting this from my iPhone, do you know what's going on?


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