Use Your Noodle!

Mar 2, 2015

A bowl of udon noodle salad.

Noodles have been consumed for thousands of years in Asia. Every Asian nation has its own noodle specialty, but Japanese noodles may be our favorite. While food fads come and go, the simplicity of Japanese noodles makes them both a vehicle for high cuisine and the ultimate comfort food. March is National Noodle Month, a great time to try Japanese noodles in place of your usual pasta recipe.

Chef Jason Cobb, Chef Instructor at Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Greenville, loves noodles hot or cold. "My grandmother is Japanese and I grew up eating noodles," he says. "Japanese noodles weren't in vogue back then. Noodles were just comfort food."

Chef Cobb likes the improvisational nature of noodles. "I don't use recipes, I just put things together," Chef Cobb says. Noodles are a great opportunity to clean out the fridge and use up those last bits of ingredients.

While there are many varieties of Japanese noodles, two are most familiar to Westerners: soba and udon.

Soba

Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat isn't wheat — it's a plant with grain-like seeds related to sorrel. Dried soba noodles usually contain both buckwheat and wheat flour, as 100% buckwheat noodles tend to be brittle.

"Soba noodle is my favorite," Chef Cobb says. "It has the most flavor and structure." Chef Cobb likes to eat soba noodles cold, with sesame oil, garlic and spring onions. Soba also adds structure and texture to broth-based hot soups. In Japan, hot noodles are slurped noisily from chopsticks (the slurping helps cool the hot noodles) and then the broth is drunk from the bowl.

Dried soba noodles are readily available in larger American supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, but soba aficionados say the taste of fresh is far superior. Fresh soba noodles can be made at home, if you're feeling adventurous.

Udon

Udon noodles are thicker and chewier than soba, and made from 100% wheat flour. Unlike soba's nutty flavor, udon noodles have a more neutral taste that make them ideal for hot and spicy soups. Try udon noodles in a curried chicken soup or a simple soup of dashi (a Japanese seafood stock), miso and soy sauce.

Like soba, udon noodles are available dried in many supermarkets, but the flavor and texture of fresh udon is incomparable. Here's a recipe for homemade udon noodles.

Whether served hot or cold, a simple dish of Japanese noodles might be the perfect comfort food. Give the mac and cheese a rest and add soba or udon to your noodle repertoire.

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