Zaru Soba

I’ve always wanted to try fresh shiso (a.k.a. perilla, a.k.a. beefsteak plant), the Japanese herb variously described as minty and basil-y. For a while, I seemed to keep coming across recipes that called for it. Unfortunately, it is one of the few things I’ve never seen at Super H, or elsewhere around here. So I bought seeds and tried to grow them. Twice they didn’t even bother sprouting. Then I went to San Francisco and enviously looked at the fresh shiso in the Japantown grocery. I almost bought it just to taste it, but I thought eating it plain and by itself would be pretty weird, so I instead bought yet more seeds from Soko Hardware. Those seeds did sprout, however, they didn’t grow more than an inch tall before dying. So I was very excited to come across both green and red shiso plants at the nearby herb store this spring. And weirdly, my shiso plants are just about the happiest plants I have right now! I realized, though, that I’d better get to eating them before I kill them.

Of course, now that I’m ready to harvest them, I have no idea what all those wonderful shiso-inspired dishes were. And since I’m not that familiar with the taste, I’m not able to dream up my own concoctions. So after considering this conundrum for quite a while tonight, I eventually decided to just make zaru soba topped with a lot of shredded shiso, to familiarize myself with the taste.

Soba are Japanese buckwheat noodles, often served cold (really, room temperature, I believe) in the summer with a dipping sauce. For the dipping sauce I would need dashi. Usually for dashi, I just soak some kombu into water for a while.

Sometimes in addition to kombu, dried shiitakes are suggested for vegan dashi.

I may be the only vegan on the planet, other than my husband, who hates mushrooms. At least it seems that way. But every now and then I’ll get brave and try something mushroom-related. Soaking a dried shiitake in my dashi seemed pretty innocuous, although I will not be attempting to eat that nasty thing after it’s served its purpose.

You can simply soak the kombu and optional shiitake in room temperature water for several hours or overnight. I use a kombu piece about 4″ square per 4 cups of water. I was in a hurry tonight, so instead of soaking, I simmered it gently for about 20 minutes, then removed the kombu and shiitake.

The resulting dashi can be stored in the refrigerator for about three days, or frozen.

Zaru Soba

1 bundle (about 3.5 ounces) soba per serving

Dipping sauce (tsuyu) (makes enough for 2-3 servings):
1 cup dashi
2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
2 Tbsp mirin
a couple of drops of stevia (or 1 tsp of sugar)

Toppings (choose any or all):
chopped scallions
toasted sesame seeds
shredded or torn nori
chiffonaded fresh shiso leaves
shichimi (Japanese 7-spice powder)
grated ginger

Cook the soba until al dente, being very careful not to overcook. Rinse under cold water very thoroughly, washing and rubbing it between your hands to remove any starch.

The “zaru” in zaru soba refers to the bamboo serving dish or basket the cold noodles are usually served on. If you have one, neatly arrange one serving of noodles on each zaru, otherwise use a pretty plate. I’m always interested in plating my meals in an attractive manner, even when only serving myself, but it seems particularly imperative with Japanese foods. So pick something nice! Sprinkle the soba with a few sesame seeds and top with some of the shredded shiso and/or nori. Set aside.

Whisk together the sauce ingredients; taste and adjust accordingly to your preference.

Place about 1/2 cup into each individual dipping bowl.

Place each of the toppings on individual serving dishes. Each diner adds the individual toppings to their dipping sauce or noodles, then dips a chopstick full of noodles at a time into the sauce.

One thing I did learn tonight that I didn’t realize before, is that the “sesame leaves” sold in the produce department at Super H are really Korean shiso! They look a little different – are flatter and darker in color – although it may be that what they have are just not as fresh as my living plant. They sell them shrink-wrapped on styrofoam so it’s hard to tell and I never really knew what to make of them.

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