Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Kyo Amemiya was born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. He's the editor-in-chief of Asahiya Publishing, a company that specializes in cooking and food books. Amemiya has done firsthand research on soba and udon all around Japan. He is well versed on a variety of related topics, including traditional soba-making techniques, today’s best restaurants, and the top ways to create a thriving business. Outside of his job, Amemiya is personally a huge fan of noodles.
December 25, 2018
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Abroad, Japan's most recognizable noodle dish is probably ramen, but in Japan, soba is at least as popular, if not more. Across the country, you'll find thousands of soba restaurants serving up the noodles, which are made from buckwheat. Japanese people have been slurping up soba noodles for hundreds of years, and they're an essential part of the country's culinary culture. In this edition of Japanology Plus, we dig into the whats and whys of soba—and the unique restaurants that serve it.
As we learn on the program, the consumption of buckwheat goes back surprisingly long in Japanese history: for over 9,000 years, in fact. That means Japanese people have been eating soba longer than they have rice! But for a long time, soba flour was shaped into dumplings, not noodles. In some parts of Japan (including Nagano, where host Peter Barakan visits) you can actually still sample soba dumplings. Known as oyaki, these dumplings are stuffed with ingredients like vegetables and mushrooms and are seasoned with miso and soy sauce. These dumplings serve as a delicious link to Japan's pre-soba noodle past.
Another buckwheat product consumed in Japan isn't a food, but a drink! Soba-cha, or buckwheat tea, is, well, just what it sounds like. A mild drink with no caffeine, it is sometimes served in place of water. A version called dattan soba-cha is known for its high levels of rutin, a nutrient expert guest Kyo Amemiya cites as one of soba's key health benefits.
Soba restaurants often feature a distinctive atmosphere of their own.
Expert guest Kyo Amemiya and host Peter Barakan visit a soba restaurant in Nagano Prefecture.
In fact, soba has quite a few health benefits. Back when Tokyo was known as Edo, Edoites were known for their love of white rice, which, while delicious, is low in thiamine (also known as vitamin B1). Chronic thiamine deficiency leads to a disease known as beriberi. Help came to Edo, though, in the form of thiamine-rich soba noodles. If that weren't enough, soba is rich in amino acids, especially lysine.
If all this is making you hungry for some soba on your next trip to Japan, well, you're in luck: with over 30,000 restaurants, it's one of the country's most accessible foods. But watch out: there are a few types of noodles in Japan that go by the name "soba" but actually contain no buckwheat. That's because the word "soba" is sometimes used to refer to noodles in general, like in the case of chūka soba, or Chinese noodles, another name for ramen. Okinawa soba is another dish that, while delicious in its own right, is made using flour, not buckwheat, noodles.
Whether you're eating soba noodles or their flour-based pretenders, it's customary to slurp. This can be surprising to first-time visitors to Japan, especially as non-noodle foods are typically eaten quietly. Some experts theorize that Japanese noodle slurping originated with soba, and that it helps diners savor the aroma of the noodles—the aroma is said to explode in your mouth thanks to the slurping. Others theorize that slurping hot noodles helps cool them down as they enter the mouth, helping to avoid burns. In any case, don’t be afraid to give it a try.
On Plus One, Matt Alt discovers the incredible balance wielded by Japan’s soba delivery people.
Soba restaurants can even be found on many train platforms. Slurp, slurp!
On the program, we learn that soba is a kind of good luck dish eaten on New Year's Eve. It is said that cutting the noodles represents cutting away the year's misfortunes. But that's only one occasion involving the noodles. They're also a customary gift given to new neighbors when they move in next door. This traditional emerged in—you guessed it—the Edo period. These days, the tradition still exists, though it has gone through a bit of a metamorphosis: 49% of respondents to a recent survey said they think of "moving soba" as when you eat soba in your new home. In other words, the gift aspect seems to have largely disappeared—though, based on what we've learned this time, we suspect few new neighbors would complain about receiving some soba!
Kyo Amemiya and Peter Barakan enjoy a bit of sake with their soba.
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