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Soba vs Udon - A Complete Guide to Popular Japanese Noodles

Although Japan is famed for its sushi, noodles are just as important and iconic a part of Japanese cuisine. It is difficult to visit Japan and not see noodles at every turn, whether the world-famous ramen or some other variety.

Japan is a country in love with noodles, which are an important ingredient of everyday life there; whether it's a quick lunch, or a special dish at a religious festival.

While there are many different types of noodle in Japanese cuisine, we shall mainly discuss two of our favorites in this article: soba and udon. They are very different from each other, but both delicious. While popular in Japan, they are not yet popular in other countries.

There are many ways to eat soba and udon noodles and they are present in many different types of Japanese dish. In this article, we explain what they taste and look like, as well as the differences between them, so you can try them with confidence and pleasure when you visit Japan.

We also describe some of the favorite dishes to be eaten along with soba and udon noodles, and some other popular varieties of noodle you can try during your Japanese culinary adventure.

Quick Comparison of Soba vs Udon

  Soba Udon
Taste Nutty and rich flavor, from the buckwheat flour with which they are made. Light flavor, often picking up the flavor of the accompanying broth or sauce.
Shape and Size Small, thin, and long, like spaghetti. Large and thick, and can be round, square, or flat.
Color Brown White and glossy
Texture Firm and dense Chewy and springy
Ingredients Buckwheat, wheat flour, water Wheat flour, salt, water
Benefits Nutritious and healthy Easy on the stomach

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What Is Soba?

Soba noodles are made mostly from buckwheat flour, which gives them a richer and nuttier flavor than other noodles. They are served in most Japanese restaurants regardless of the season, and are an important constituent of the country's cuisine. Soba dishes are so common, noodles are often simply referred to as soba in Japanese.

soba Soba noodles are brown

Soba noodles are brown, which makes them easy to recognize, because most other noodles in Japan are yellow or white. Soba noodles are dense, thin, and long. When dried, they are similar in shape to spaghetti.

In grocery stores, soba noodles are often found dried. Many restaurants, however, make them from scratch. They are served in many hot soup dishes as well as in some cold dry dishes.

Soba Health Benefits

When going out for noodles in Japan, soba noodles are the healthiest option. They are not only low in calories but also low in carbohydrates and contain all eight essential amino acids.

The basic ingredient of soba noodles, buckwheat flour, is known for having many health benefits, including important nutrients such as vitamin B, fiber, and iron. In Japan, soba noodles are regarded as being restorative and energy-boosting.

In recent years, buckwheat has been regarded as a health food because it is gluten-free. It's important, however, to know that most soba noodles are not entirely gluten-free, because they do contain a small amount of wheat flour.

Buckwheat Buckwheat

You can order soba noodles that are made entirely from buckwheat flour, and therefore gluten-free, by asking for juwari soba instead of regular soba.

Soba Noodle Ingredients

Although soba noodles are highly nutritious, they are actually very simple to make. The only ingredients are buckwheat flour, plain flour, and water. The three ingredients are kneaded into thin dough. Then they are sliced into long thin spaghetti-like strands.

Once the dough is formed the noodles are added to hot water, which is boiled until the noodles are cooked. Then a broth or sauce is added to the noodles to make a complete dish.

How Is Soba Eaten?

Soba is often eaten hot in the winter and cold in the summer. Cold soba is served dry without broth. It is commonly served with typical soup toppings, wrapped in seaweed, or served as a cold noodle salad with dipping sauces.

soba A bowl of hot soba is served with a tasty broth

Like ramen, a bowl of hot soba is served with a tasty broth. Hot soba is often topped with chopped green onions and chili powder.

The broths and sauces served with soba noodles are often light in flavor and specifically designed to let the natural flavor of the noodles shine through and compliment the nuttiness of the buckwheat.

What Is Udon?

Like soba, udon noodles are extremely popular in Japan, though they haven't yet become popular in other countries. They are very different from soba noodles in appearance. Whereas soba noodles are brown, flat, and thin, udon noodles are glossy white, round, and thick.

udon Udon noodles go with almost all broths and flavors

Udon noodles have their own unique taste and texture. Made from wheat flour, they are much milder in flavor than their buckwheat counterparts and are thick and chewy in texture. Because of their neutral flavor, udon noodles go with almost all broths and flavors, making for endless possibilities.

While udon noodles don't have as many health benefits as soba noodles, they are known specifically for being easy on the stomach, and their versatility makes them difficult to dislike.

The taste and density of udon noodles can vary according to the region of Japan where you eat them. The most famous place for trying udon noodles is Kagawa prefecture, where they are known for being chewy and springy. Kagawa is said to be the home of udon, and people from all over Japan visit there to try the noodles.

Udon Noodle Ingredients

Udon noodles are made of wheat flour, salt, and water. These ingredients are kneaded into dough and then the dough is rolled out and cut into thick strips. Udon can be made into many shapes; square, wide and thin, round, and more.

Just like soba, udon noodles are placed in hot water and boiled until done. Once cooked, fresh udon noodles have a springy and bouncy quality.

How Is Udon Eaten?

udon Udon soup is usually served plain without too many toppings

There is a practically endless variety of broths, sauces, and dishes with which udon can be served. Most commonly, however, the glossy noodles are seen in a light broth, creating a noodle soup.

Udon soup is usually served plain without too many toppings, because the thick noodles are already very filling, so extra toppings are perceived as unnecessary.

Besides being eaten as noodle soup, udon is commonly served in a thick curry sauce, stir-fried with vegetables, or deep-fried. It can also be served cold with a dipping sauce on the side.

Where to Find Soba and Udon

Soba and udon noodles can be found all over Japan, in most noodle shops. Noodle dishes in Japan are often very different, depending on the region. If you are traveling to multiple prefectures, a great way to learn about each prefecture's food culture is to try the same soba and udon dish in each, and compare the flavors.

Soba and udon noodles can be found in family restaurants and eateries, and near tourist sites. You can also find them at specialty restaurants. Restaurants that specialize in udon are called udon-ya and those that specialize in soba are called soba-ya.

udon Udon can be found in family restaurants and eateries

In Japan, quick noodle meals can often be found in restaurants clustered below department stores and at train stations. Because Japan has widely implemented the use of machines in the service industry, you can order your noodles via the machine outside the shop and choose your noodles, flavor, and side dishes. Then, just give your meal ticket to the staff and enjoy your fresh noodles inside.

A typical bowl of noodles costs between 500 and 1,000 yen, but some more up-market restaurants charge between 1,000 to 1,500 yen. There are also low-cost noodle chains where budget travelers can find noodle bowls for a price below 500 yen.

Most noodle shops open around 11 am or earlier and continue to serve until early evening. In major cities (especially in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka), certain street stalls selling ramen, soba, udon, sushi rolls, grilled chicken skewers, and a variety of other snacks stay open for business late in the evening and even beyond midnight.

Where to Buy Soba and Udon

Soba and Udon noodles are sold dried, fresh, or frozen in most Japanese supermarkets, grocery stores, and even in some family-run shops. Soba and Udon have long been popular in many Asian countries with instant noodle packages being widely available. It is even possible to see them at major American grocery stores.

Typically, soba noodles are sold dried and are usually packaged in 3 bundles of noodle cakes. Fresh soba is also available in the refrigerated sections. When choosing soba noodles, you should pay attention to the ingredient list and the buckwheat flour percentage.

Juwari Soba, which is made exclusively from 100% buckwheat flour, usually costs more than soba that only contains 60% buckwheat flour mixed with white flour. In Japan, the full buckwheat flour products all have the Japanese characters. In America, you will find brands like Hakubaku Organic Soba and Eden Soba Pasta that sell 100% buckwheat noodles.

When it comes to Udon noodles, the fresh version is often better than the dried due to the smooth and soft texture that can only be maintained in fresh noodles. Sanuki udon is the most popular type.

Dishes That Are Good with Both Soba and Udon

While soba and udon noodles have different textures and flavors, and can be served in very different ways, they can also be used interchangeably with certain dishes. Below we have listed some of our favorite dishes going well with either soba or udon.

Kitsune Soba and Kitsune Udon (hot/cold)

Kitsune soba or udon can be served hot or cold. It is a dish of noodles in broth, topped with aburaage. Aburaage are pieces of thinly sliced tofu that have been coated in soy sauce and sugar then fried. This dish originated in Osaka and is a well-loved Japanese classic.

Tempura Soba and Tempura Udon (hot/cold)

Tempura soba or udon is a dish consisting of the noodles and broth that comes with a serving of tempura (fried vegetables or seafood). The tempura is normally served in the bowl with noodles and broth, but can sometimes be served separately.

udon Tempura Udon

This dish usually comes as shrimp tempura, though some restaurants also serve vegetable tempura.

Zaru Soba and Zaru Udon (cold)

Zaru soba or udon is a cold dish consisting of chilled noodles served on a bamboo mat. The noodles are served with a dipping sauce, and customers are meant to dip the noodles before eating. The dish is light, healthy, and delicious, and is refreshing during hot summer months.

sobaChilled noodles served on a bamboo mat

Kake Soba and Kake Udon (hot)

Kake soba or udon are hot noodle soup dishes served in a broth called kakejiru, made from soy sauce, mirin, and dashi. This dish is usually only topped with green onions and possibly a fish cake, but nothing else. The simplicity of its flavors is meant to highlight the taste and texture of the noodles.

Tanuki Soba and Tanuki Udon (hot/cold)

Tanuki soba or udon is a noodle soup dish topped with bits of crunchy tempura batter, left over from the tempura frying process. The deep-fried batter bits in this dish add nice texture and are one of the only toppings besides green onions.

Tsukimi Soba and Tsukimi Udon (hot)

Tsukimi soba or udon is usually served in hot broth, featuring in a raw egg that sits on top of the noodles.

udon Featuring in a raw egg

Regional Soba and Udon Dishes

Soba and udon can be easily found all across Japan and especially in the most celebrated culinary centers like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. However, each town, particularly in regions where the soil is suitable for growing buckwheat, takes pride in its unique specialty noodle dishes.

Regional Soba Dishes

Nagano Prefecture is the most famous region for Shinshu soba, which contains at least 40% soba flour mixed with wheat flour.

Yamagata Prefecture is known for Ita soba, a type of noodle that is made of unpolished soba flour giving the noodles a stronger texture. This type of soba is also cut slightly larger and served on a large board call ita.

Izumo soba is popular in Izumo where the flour is made from the buckwheat seed's hull and has a stronger smell. Izumo soba is usually served in a three-story stackable dish with different toppings and dipping sauces served on the side to be added in.

Traditionally, after you finish the top dish of Izumo soba, you should pour the leftover sauce into the middle layer and then the last layer after that. This way, the sauce continues to develop a rich flavor.

Cha soba is a kind of soba flavored with green tea powder and thus results in green noodles. Cha soba can be easily found in Uji, a small city that boasts some of the best matcha in Japan. This dish can be served both hot and cold.

soba Soba flavored with green tea powder

Nishin soba is a unique dish that includes a whole pacific herring as a topping. The fish is first simmered in soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar before it is dried then braised.

Regional Udon Dishes

Udon has more variation in its shape and thickness. Sanuki Udon is the most famous type of udon in Japan and is named after the previous name of Kagawa Prefecture. Sanuki udon has a more firm and chewy texture due to the inclusion of a specific type of wheat. This dish can be served both cold with dipping sauce and hot with broth and toppings.

Mizusawa Udon is another famous type of udon that is known for being made from locally grown wheat flour, spring water, and carefully selected salt. These noodles have a firm and thick quality and are usually served cold with a soy-based dipping sauce or a sesame dipping sauce.

Inaniwa Udon has a history of over 300 years and was first made in the Inaniwa area of Akita. These noodles are thinner and have a smooth texture due to the way the traditional way noodles are prepared which takes about four days and includes kneading the dough, wrapping it around rods, flattening and stretching the noodles, and finally leaving them out to air dry.

Ise Udon is a thick and chewy noodle that served with a dark sauce which is often made from dried kelp or smoked fish. Common toppings on this dish include green onions and bonito fish flakes. Ise Udon is widely sold at traditional udon restaurants.

Other Popular Japanese Noodles

Besides soba and udon, there are many different types of noodle in Japan. Some of the other popular noodles include ramen, yakisoba, and somen. Below, we detail the differences between soba and udon and each of the other three popular varieties.

Soba and Udon vs Ramen

Ramen is the best-known Japanese noodle outside Japan, though it is one of the newest culinary inventions in the country. The biggest difference between ramen and soba noodles is the flavor. While soba noodles are made mostly with buckwheat, ramen is usually made with wheat flour.

While udon and ramen are made with the same type of flour, ramen is cut into a much thinner and smaller noodle while udon is thick and chewy. Food served with ramen noodles varies, and often a more complicated process is used to make the noodles themselves than for soba or udon.

Soba and Udon vs Yakisoba

Although the name yakisoba includes the word soba, yakisoba noodles are not made with buckwheat flour but instead with wheat flour, like udon and ramen.

Yakisoba noodles are round, but much smaller and thinner than udon. They are most commonly used in stir-fried noodle dishes, and are not usually eaten with broth.

Soba and Udon vs Somen

Somen noodles have a similar texture and flavor to udon noodles and are also made with wheat flour. However, somen noodles are thinner and normally eaten cold with sauce, instead of in hot broths.

Unlike soba or udon noodles, somen noodles are not made by cutting, but by stretching the dough. This gives somen noodles a smoother and more elastic texture.

Learn How to Make Soba during Your Trip to Japan

Learn how to make soba noodles at a noodle school where the chef will teach you how to use a stone mortar to grind the buckwheat into flour and then how to knead the flour with water and salt to create the soba dough.

You will then be able to try chopping the dough yourself with a traditional knife to make raw noodles. When you have finished cooking the noodles, sit down to enjoy your delicious freshly-made soba.

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