Asian noodles don’t always come steaming in a piping hot bowl. Countries throughout East Asia, especially in the north, also have traditions of serving their noodles cold.
The Japanese buckwheat noodles soba, for example, usually are rinsed in cold water and served with a dipping sauce.
The basic soba dish is morisoba—chilled buckwheat noodles and a dashi broth flavored with bonito flakes, kombu kelp, soy sauce and mirin, a type of rice wine. When the noodles are topped with shredded seaweed, it becomes zarusoba. Add tempura on the side and it is tempurasoba.
“Those three are the most common types of soba available in soba restaurants,” says Ken Kusakabe, vice president of T.I.C. Group, a New York-based company with various Japanese restaurants.
Kusakabe explains that soba started out as dumplings made with buckwheat flour, but in Japan’s Edo period—1603-1867—it was developed into actual noodles.
At Soba-ya the noodles are made with an eight-to-two ratio of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. They are house-made because Kusakabe says buckwheat can be unstable in dried form and the unique taste of soba is sensitive to many things, such as exposure to air.
Soba-ya also serves bukkakesoba, for which sauce is poured over the noodles instead of being served on the side for dipping. Salmon roe and grated radish top ikurasoba, while tororosoba comes with grated Japanese yam and boiled spinach. Scallions, wasabi and hot pepper are served on the side.
Kusakabe says that the attraction of soba is its simplicity. “Japanese people like it for the taste of the noodles. They don’t like so much on it,” he says. “For Americans, they don’t have much knowledge about enjoying the noodles, so they enjoy the taste of the toppings and side dishes.”
Many soba chefs in Japan prefer to specialize only in a limited menu of cold noodles. But to appeal to a Western audience, restaurants like Soba-ya often serve a wide variety of cold and warm noodles along with a large menu of appetizers and side dishes.
“We boost up the soy and vinegar in the dashi broth, so it’s a bit more bold in flavor,” says Paul Muller, chef-partner of concept development for Taneko Japanese Tavern, the newest concept of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc. The broth is poured over cold soba for a noodle bowl. “The Japanese noodles are a little too delicate for some of our American tastes.”
Muller explains that Taneko’s menu is “very Japanese—with some of our American touches.” The noodle broth, called “ocean vinaigrette” on the menu, is named for the vinegar broth from the Tosu region of Japan. The vinegar is infused heavily with dried bonito flakes from tuna caught in Tosu, as well as kombu.
Muller’s buckwheat noodles in the soba bowl are served with chilled roasted duck breast or poached fish depending on the time of the year, along with wilted greens, pickled shiitake mushrooms and shredded Japanese-style sweet egg omelet. Pickled root vegetables also might be offered depending on seasonal availability.
Taneko offers the cold version of the soba noodle bowl starting around March and Muller plans to introduce a chilled ramen dish around that time.
The restaurant also offers a chilled ramen garnished with pork, poached shrimp and poached seasonal, organic vegetables with cold broth poured over it. A dollop of grated wasabi and shichimi togarashi, a Japanese spice blend, add a kick.
“It’s one of those dishes that is deceivingly exciting to eat,” Muller says. “It’s really vibrant and fresh with great flavors. The shichimi togarashi is great because if you add just a little bit it adds flavor and starts building the heat.”
Naeng myun translates literally from Korean into English as “cold noodles.” Although it is a summertime favorite, it has its roots in the scarcity of winter. In the region that is now North Korea, during the winter when there was not much to eat, pickled juice from a mild, watery radish kimchi known as dongchimi would be poured over the noodles to make a meal. Since kimchi was kept in jars buried in the ground during the winter months for natural refrigeration, the resulting dish was ice cold.
The broth for the modern version of naeng myun is made from a combination of beef broth and dongchimi juice. At Kang Suh Korean Restaurant in New York, head noodle chef Hahn Sung-gun makes his broth by cooking beef brisket and short ribs for at least five hours. The noodles are made to order by mixing hot water and buckwheat flour imported from South Korea. The noodle is cooked for about a minute to a minute and a half and then quickly rinsed in cold water. The noodles’ more elastic texture usually requires cutting with scissors at the table.
The noodles are garnished with pickled radish, cucumber, slices of Korean shingo pear, boiled egg and thin slices of brisket used to make the broth. Customers can add vinegar, spicy mustard or a chile powder-based seasoning for flavor.
Another version of naeng myun is bibim naeng myun. Bibim means “stirred” or “tossed,” and the dish is made by stirring the cold noodles with a sweet-spicy sauce made from a Korean red pepper paste called gochujang.
Kang Suh’s sauce also includes grated ginger, pear and garlic.
The noodles need to be sturdy to stand up to all that tossing, so Hahn cuts his buckwheat flour with potato starch. He also adds a splash of cold water to the boiling water before adding the noodles. If he didn’t, he says, “they would come apart.”
The noodles need only ten seconds to cook. Then they are rinsed in cold water and tossed in the chile sauce and sesame oil.
Some restaurants choose to embrace inspiration from different Asian cuisines to create new dishes. Republic, a noodle restaurant near Union Square in New York, attracts a mainly hip, young crowd from New York University with its take on Asian cuisine. General manager Monica Mateo explains that the menu, created by co-owner and head chef Hui Chi Li, is a fusion, with mostly Thai and Vietnamese influences. “It’s just really fun, really simple dishes,” she says.
The restaurant’s spinach noodles are more of a salad with cold wheat vermicelli, bean sprouts, red peppers, spinach and soy-lime sauce. Other dishes like the barbecue pork noodles play with warm and cold, with the thin slices of warm barbecued pork flavored with soy and garlic served with cold rice vermicelli. Bean sprouts, scallions, cucumber and peanuts add extra dimensions to the texture.
Noodle Bar Asian Bistro is another New York noodle restaurant with Pan-Asian influences.
Manager Eric Wong says that head chef Heng Cheong and the other kitchen staff bring their own backgrounds and inspiration to the menu. There the cold sesame-peanut egg noodles are tossed with cucumber, roasted Chinese eggplant and cashews in a sesame-peanut sauce. The honey-roasted duck soba mixes Japanese cuisine with Southeast Asian flavor by tossing buckwheat noodles and roasted duck breast with mango, tamarind and ginger dressing.