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:
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:
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.
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:
Carrots, onions and garlic. Garlic must be crushed. You can be sloppy cutting up the onions because they cook down to nothing anyhow.
Mushrooms and meat.
Peppers and snap peas.
Noodles, which have to be soft, either previously boiled or bought that way.
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).
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.