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What Are The Differences Between Soba and Udon Noodles?

What Are The Differences Between Soba and Udon Noodles?

Translated by MATCHA_En

Written by k_yamamuro

2016.09.08 Bookmark

These two popular noodle dishes - soba and udon - are found throughout Japan. However, there are many regional differences to both, especially between the Kantō and Kansai regions.

Soba and udon are both typical Japanese noodle dishes found at almost any Japanese restaurant. Although these dishes are well known to Japanese people, it might be difficult for people from overseas to understand the differences between the two dishes without a little preparation in advance.

Here we'll introduce some useful trivia, taste and nutritional information, standard menu items, as well as tips for when ordering both soba and udon in Japan.

Characteristics and Menu Items

To begin with, soba is mostly made from buckwheat flour and water, which is kneaded together, rolled into thin sheets and cut into long slender noodles. On the other hand, udon is made from wheat flour, water and salt, which are kneaded together, rolled and cut into thick noodles. Though the cooking style is the same, the basic ingredients are completely different.

As soba uses buckwheat flour, it has a more distinct, almost "grain-y" taste while udon has more texture to it. Depending on the area in which they are made, there are even more variations on these two dishes. Now let's look at some standard menu items.

Juwari Soba

Photo by Jun Seita on flickr

Soba is typically made with buckwheat flour with filler, (that filler mainly being regular wheat flour), but when you find something called juwari soba (十割そば) on the menu, you can rest assured that what you are eating has been made with 100% buckwheat flour (*1).

*1 Juwari means 100%.

You may also see noodles that have been labeled nihachi soba (二八, 20/80), which means that they have been made with 20% wheat flour, 80% buckwheat flour.

For those that prefer the deeper flavor of soba noodles, or have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten, juwari soba is the best Japanese noodle dish for you. Not only are they made from 100% buckwheat flour, but they are also chock full of vitamin B1.

If it's your first time trying soba or you prefer something with a slightly gentler taste, it may be better to eat nihachi soba instead.

Sanuki Udon

Photo by pelican on flickr

While udon's characteristics vary depending on which area it has been made in, one extremely famous type of udon is sanuki udon from Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. The above is a picture of traditional sanuki udon.

The name "sanuki udon" can only be used to describe handmade noodles made in Kagawa prefecture (there are no machines involved in any step of the process). They are known for having koshi, or a good bite, as well as for going down really easily.

As for other types of regional udon, the Kiryū region in Gunma prefecture has an interesting local dish known as himokawa udon, which is made with thick, flat udon. These noodles are approximately 1 mm thick, but up to 10 cm wide.

Kantō and Kansai: the Battle of the Sauces

The sauce, or tsuyu (made with soy sauce and stock) for the udon and soba varies greatly depending on whether it is the Kansai region or Kantō region. First and foremost, in the Kantō region, they use stock from katsuobushi along with koikuchi (strongly flavored) soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine only for cooking), so the tsuyu in this area is a dark almost-black color with a strong flavor.

On the other hand, in Kansai they use stock made from kombu seaweed with usukuchi (lightly flavored) soy sauce, which makes the stock lighter in color, but not light in flavor.

Soba and udon's most recognizable dishes are kake udon, and kake soba, which are soba and udon inside warm stock. There are also dishes you eat cold; the most widely recognized of which are zaru soba and zaru udon. When you're eating cold soba, you'll be served as in the picture above, in which you have the noodles and the sauce served separately and you dip the noodles into the stock before eating.

What's This About Kitsune and Tanuki?

Photo by onigiri-kun

Kake udon/soba and zaru udon/soba are both simple dishes with no toppings. Udon and soba dishes with tempura are top are called tempura soba and tempura udon.

Well then, what exactly are kitsune soba/udon (fox soba/udon) and tanuki soba/udon (raccoon-dog soba/udon)?

Kitsune soba and udon are both hot dishes with abura-age (thinly sliced deep-fried tōfu) in it. It is a commonly held belief in Japan that kitsune or foxes love abura-age, hence the association.


Photo by Jessica Spengler on flickr

Soba or udon that comes with age-dama on top (age-dama being the fried crumbs of tempura batter) is known as tanuki soba/udon. Udon or soba with these crumbs, also known as tenkasu, on it is called tanuki soba/udon in the Kantō area. However, in Kansai, udon/soba with abura-age on it is known as tanuki udon/soba (kitsune udon/soba in Kanto).

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