Behind The Recipe: Chilled Soba Noodles with Tofu and Sugar Snap Peas

A food editor shares how she developed her vegetarian version of this cooling Japanese noodle dish.
soba noodles

About ten years ago, I moved to a little town near Osaka, Japan. When I wasn’t giving cooking lessons to Japanese housewives, I was exploring and eating around the country.

The only problem was that I had absolutely no appetite in the summer. The humidity there was so intense that when I stepped outside, I felt nauseous from the unbearable heat. The only thing I could handle eating was salad.

While visiting Kyoto, I saw a crowd of locals dining outside a small restaurant. This was clearly the place to go; every other restaurant I passed stood empty. A window display showed plastic models of the Japanese noodle dishes they served, like udon, ramen, and soba. I ordered a side of chilled fresh tofu in a light sauce with shaved bonito and the cold soba, served in a zaru (a bamboo basket used as a strainer) with a beautifully melting ice cube or two to keep the noodles cool. With the zaru soba came little bowls of wasabi, scallion, and grated ginger to season a larger cup of soy-dashi dipping sauce. I dipped the noodles in the sauce, and slurped. Loudly.

Even on that shadeless street, sweating under the sun, I found the chilled soba refreshing. And I was thrilled to have stumbled upon one of Japan’s greatest culinary treasures. Noodle-makers throughout the country roll soba and other noodles by hand, elevating a simple dish to an art form. I savored it often.

So when I was asked to develop a vegetarian main course for a hot day in July, I immediately thought of cold soba. While the noodles and sauce alone constitute a complete meal in Japan, they might not be substantial enough in America. I realized that adding the chilled tofu I enjoyed in Kyoto would make the soba a hearty one-dish meal. I tossed in snap peas and spinach for brightness and balance. Minor vegetarian adjustments had to be made—like preparing dashi without the dried fish. But the solution was simple: dried mushrooms, which gave the broth a nice umami depth. The dipping sauce gets its savory tang from bottled ponzu, which tends to be a vegetarian-friendly ingredient. Served altogether, the gentle flavors meld into a satisfying cold entrée that’s perfect for sweltering summer nights.

No slaving over a hot stove required: These refreshing yet substantial noodles take just 30 minutes to prepare.

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