Mention “soba” and one immediately thinks of Japan, bustling streets lined with traditional restaurants and stalls purveying sushi, okonomiyaki, takoyaki and the like, a sleepless cadence of clanging utensils, billowing steam and scurrying waitstaff. But the origin of soba is traced back to China, the primordial version a type of porridge that fuelled Chinese Buddhists while they were on those long enduring journeys. The Buddhists brought soba into Japan, and the Japanese transmuted the version by using buckwheat grains in lieu of rice, hulling and steaming them.
It is said that circa the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), a Buddhist temple fed the hungry people soba noodles on the last day of the year, thus birthing the culture of eating soba on New Year’s Eve. The buckwheat grain’s triangular (mikado) shape symbolised the power of the Emperor (named also mikado). With the proliferation of stone-grinding mills, the grains were ground into flour and then made into sobagaki, a kind of cooked dough with the consistency of soft mochi. Around the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), soba kiri — which means cut soba, the version that we know today — was developed in Nagano Prefecture, and rising in popularity it became a staple in Japan.