22 February 2011

Daring Cooks February Challenge: Cold Soba Salad and Tempura

This challenge made me very happy. I finally had an excuse to use purple potatoes!

Today is February 22, not February 14. Oops. I’m a little late posting this challenge, but it just seemed easier to make this one when Bender was out of town. I tried making it twice when he was in town, but my tasters kept bailing on me at the last minute (for very good reasons, not because they were averse to tasting it) and I wasn’t about to make this one for me and Bender only. So I decided to wait an extra week and make it for myself only when Bender was away at a conference. And boy, am I glad I did.

The February 2011 Daring Cooks’ challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl.  She challenged
Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi Soba and Tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including japanesefood.about.com, pinkbites.com, and itsybitsyfoodies.com.

I love Japanese food. Bender loves hibachi food, but not so much other things. Miso soup? Love it. Sushi? Love it. Edamame? Love it. Ginger salad dressing? Adore it! Tempura udon? Love it. I have yet to come across a Japanese dish that I don’t like. Well, maybe I didn’t like the eel, but I’d be willing to try it again now that it’s been 13 years. (Wow, I can’t believe that was 13 years ago!) So when I saw this challenge, I was more than a little excited. I have tried soba noodles at various times, but always found myself more drawn to the udon noodles However, I am always interested in trying things at home, and I knew I would love the final product even if I normally prefer udon noodles.

The recipe for the Cold Soba Salad really showcased the noodle. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat and the ones I’ve seen have a square cross-section rather than circle. They are a bit firmer in texture than semolina noodles and almost have a nutty flavor. I’ll definitely use these again. Plus, it’s fun to cook them. How often do you get to bring water to a rolling boil and then shoot it with cold water to make it stop?

Soba Noodles
2 quarts (2 L) water + 1 cup cold water, separate
12 oz (340 g) dried soba (buckwheat) noodles (or any Asian thin noodle)

Cooking the noodles:
Heat 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the noodles a small bundle at a time, stirring gently to separate. When the water returns to a full boil, add 1 cup of cold water. Repeat this twice. When the water returns to a full boil, check the noodles for doneness. You want to cook them until they are firm-tender. Do not overcook them.

Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse well under cold running water until the noodles are cool.  This not only stops the cooking process, but also removes the starch from the noodles. This is an essential part of soba noodle making. Once the noodles are cool, drain them and cover them with a damp kitchen towel and set them aside allowing them to cool completely. Or, place them in a bowl of cold water and put them in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Breakfast noodles in Mentsuyu dipping sauce. 

Mentsuyu - Traditional dipping sauce:
2 cups (480ml) Kombu and Katsuobushi dashi (This can be bought in many forms from most Asian stores and you can make your own. Recipe is HERE.) Or a basic vegetable stock.
1/3 cup (80 ml) soy sauce or a low sodium soy sauce
1/3 cup (80 ml) mirin (sweet rice wine)
*Note: If you can’t find Mirin, a substitute recipe can be found HERE

Put mirin in a sauce pan and heat gently. Add soy sauce and dashi soup stock in the pan and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and cool. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Spicy Dipping Sauce
¾ cup 70gm/2½ oz spring onions/green onions/scallions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons (45 ml) soy sauce
2 tablespoons (30 ml) rice vinegar
½ teaspoon (2½ ml) (4 ⅔ gm) (0.16 oz)  granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon (1¼ ml) (1/8 gm) (0.005 oz) English mustard powder
1 tablespoon (15 ml) grape-seed oil or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon (15 ml) sesame oil (if you can’t find this just omit from recipe.)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste - roughly 1/3 teaspoon of each

Shake all the ingredients together in a covered container. Once the salt has dissolved, add and shake in 2 tablespoons of water and season again if needed.

Common Hiyashi Soba Toppings:
Boiled chicken breasts
Boiled bean sprouts
Toasted nori (Dried Seaweed)
Green onions
Wasabi powder
Finely grated daikon (Japanese radish)
Beni Shoga (Pickled Ginger)
*If you like egg sushi, you’ll LOVE the thin omelet recipe linked here.

All toppings should be julienne, finely diced or grated.  Prepare and refrigerate covered until needed.

Traditionally soba is served on a bamboo basket tray, but if you don’t have these, you can simply serve them on a plate or in a bowl. Divide up the noodles, laying them on your serving dishes.

Sprinkle each one with nori. In small side bowl or cup, place 1/2 cup (120 ml) of dipping sauce into each. In separate small side dishes, serve each person a small amount of wasabi, grated daikon, and green onions.

The noodles are eaten by sprinkling the desired garnishes into the dipping sauce and eating the noodles by first dipping them into the sauce. Feel free to slurp away! Oishii!

Okay, I know that looks like a LOT, but it really doesn’t take much time (Okay, so the tempura takes a while just because you fry it in batches, but if you go for fresh veggies for your noodles, you'll be eating in no time!). If you can boil spaghetti noodles, you can boil soba noodles, just rinse them extra well in very cold water afterwards. I also stored mine in cold water in the fridge and they stayed perfectly separated and tasty that way. I will warn you that my noodles were done after shocking them with water only twice, instead of three times. Make sure you don’t overcook them. Mine got a bit past al dente and I would have preferred them at al dente, but they were still tasty.

For dinner, whilst the tempura was still hot, I tried the noodles with both sauces and plenty of tempura. The Mentsuyu (traditional dipping sauce) is so simple that it really makes the noodles and veggies stand out. If you are looking for more of a punch, go with the spicy dipping sauce (see note below in “lunch”). I also added fresh grated radish, which was a lovely addition. Unfortunately, in the mess of my kitchen, I completely forgot that I’d made thin omelet to go on my noodles, so I didn’t try that until the following day.

Dinner: cold soba noodles, hot tempura, messily grated radish, and dipping sauce of choice.

For breakfast, I loved the noodles with a thin omelet and the Mentsuyu (traditional dipping sauce) used as a broth. I plopped some noodles in the bowl, sliced up the omelet I’d made the night before, added the broth, and viola, breakfast in less than a minute. Even though it was 13 degrees outside when I ate it, the cold noodles were a perfect breakfast. If you slurp away in front of the radiator (make sure it’s turned on) while watching the snow fall, it’s even better. Just make sure you brew yourself a steaming cup of coffee or tea afterwards!

For lunch, also cold, I ate the noodles with the spicy dipping sauce (It’s not heat spicy, so don’t worry about that… I even added a pinch of red pepper flakes to the sauce and it still wasn’t hot) and leftover cold tempura, but these noodles and this sauce beg for julienne fresh veggies with lots of crunch. I highly recommend cucumber, green beans, radish, carrot, and anything else that will give you a good crunch and make your taste buds happy.

Cold soba noodles and tempura for lunch with thin omelet strips and spicy dipping sauce. 


Ever wanted to make your own tempura? See how to here:

1 egg yolk from a large egg
1 cup (240 ml) iced water
½ cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (2½ oz) plain (all purpose) flour, plus extra for dredging
½ cup (120 ml) (70 gm) (2½ oz) cornstarch
½ teaspoon (2½ ml) (2½ gm) (0.09 oz) baking powder
oil, for deep frying preferably vegetable
ice water bath, for the tempura batter (a larger bowl than what will be used for the tempura should be used.  Fill the large bowl with ice and some water, set aside)

Very cold vegetables and seafood of your choice (eg):
Sweet potato, peeled, thinly sliced, blanched
Carrot, peeled, thinly sliced diagonally
Pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed, thinly sliced blanched
Green beans, trimmed
Green bell pepper/capsicum, seeds removed, cut into 2cm (¾ inch)-wide strips
Assorted fresh mushrooms
Eggplant cut into strips (traditionally it’s fanned)
Onions sliced

I used purple potatoes, broccoli, green beans, mushrooms, and shrimp.

Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flours and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined.  The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies help create a crispy tempura.

Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. It is more difficult to maintain a steady temperature and produce consistent tempura if you don’t have a thermometer, but it can be done. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.

Start with the vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, that won’t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter.  Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.
Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off (I like to place a paper bag under my wire rack to catch the drips). Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor. Serve immediately for the best flavor, but they can also be eaten cold.

My first veggies (purple potatoes) definitely turned out lighter and crispier than the mushrooms, which I did last. It took me so long to fry everything that I didn’t end up frying all the green beans I had prepped because I got bored. Go figure. Also, by that point in time, I’d eaten so many other pieces of tempura as they came out of the oil that I was full. Oops. The tempura was great hot and good cold out of the refrigerator, but not so much after it’d cooled to room temperature day of. So, eat as you go!

 Potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, shrimp, and green beans.
I’m going to have to leave the tempura making to the pros for a little bit longer. I wasn’t blown away with my own attempt at it.

Many thanks to Lisa of Blueberry Girl for a great challenge! My mouth will thank you every time I make soba noodles from now on! 


  1. I'm not a radish girl but I love all the colors in the dishes! Sorry the tempura wasn't as awesome as you're used to having. What was different about it? Could it be a variation in recipes? I'm glad you liked the soba noodles! For a bit I thought they were going to have you make them from scratch. I'm always amazed at what you can eat for breakfast.

  2. Neat that you used soba. Last week I came across a recipe using them.

  3. @ Tabitha: The *extra* challenge this month was to make the noodles from scratch, but I'm not quite ready for that.

    The tempura was not as crispy as I would have liked, and I definitely should not have stirred it as much as I did.

    Hey, it had egg in it! Doesn't that qualify as breakfast food?

    @ Aunt Vicki: Try them and let me know how you like them!

  4. I'm so sad I haven't been able to do the DC challenges. This one looked great!

  5. It is great that you could do the DC at last you did a wonderful job on it and the colourful potatoes and radish look so pretty and I bet were tasty. Wonderful job on this challenge. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

  6. @ Ninette: We are eagerly awaiting your return!

    @ Audax: Thank you! And thank you for giving so many great tips this challenge (as usual)!


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