Ramen’s stir-fried cousin, yakisoba, is still relatively unknown outside of Japan, but it’s one of the most popular everyday dishes here.
Unlike ramen, which is rarely made from scratch at home because of the complexity of its soup, yakisoba is quite easy to whip up for a quick lunch. It’s also a very popular food stall snack, especially during summer matsuri (festivals), and instant yakisoba is widely available. You can even get yakisoba bread — soft rolls stuffed with yakisoba. (Confusingly, the name “yakisoba” is actually applied to several different dishes, such as kata-yakisoba, made with crispy deep-fried noodles. Various stir-fried noodle dishes from around Asia are also called yakisoba, such as “Thai yakisoba” for pad thai. Here, I’ll be talking about the soft stir-fried noodle dish.)
Although the word yakisoba means “fried soba noodles,” soba (buckwheat) is not used at all. Like ramen, yakisoba uses a type of noodle that is Chinese in origin and made with wheat flour and an alkaline water called kansui (jian shui in Chinese), or lye water. The alkaline gives the noodles a yellow color and a unique chewy, springy and smooth texture. The noodles are steamed or boiled before stir-frying. You can also buy pre-steamed noodles meant for yakisoba, which often come with packets of sauce.
It’s not quite clear when yakisoba was invented, but one theory holds that it was in the town of Yokote in Akita Prefecture shortly after World War II. In those days, small snack and candy shops called dagashi-ya were popular hangouts for kids, as well as many adults. Some dagashi-ya cooked simple snack foods like okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) as well as selling pre-packaged products. Legend has it that one dagashi-ya in Yokote came up with the idea of making a quick stir-fried noodle dish that could be made on a teppan (iron grill) — alongside the okonomiyaki — and thus yakisoba was born. There are conflicting versions of the origins of yakisoba, however. An old book about food history states that it was sold in Asakusa, in Tokyo, shortly after the war. Meanwhile, the town of Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has been very successful in promoting its hometown version of yakisoba, insists that yakisoba was invented there as an alternative to a similar dish made with thin rice flour noodles (bīfun) during the postwar rice shortage.
Although Japanese yakisoba is similar to Chinese lo mein in that it’s a dish of stir-fried noodles, protein and vegetables, the flavoring is quite different. Perhaps because of its origins as a snack for kids, it has a sweet-salty flavor from the blended sauce made from Japanese Worcestershire-style sauce (usually just called “sauce”) and oyster sauce.
This recipe is inspired by the famous yakisoba of Fujinomiya, a two-time winner of the B-1 Grand Prix competition to promote down-to-earth regional cuisine. The key ingredient that gives this yakisoba its characteristic richness is nikukasu (rendered pork fat or pork crackling). If you can’t find nikukasu you can make your own by slowly rendering chopped up pork fat until it’s crispy.
Yakisoba: Stir-fried noodles
Ingredients (serves 4)
For the sauce:
• 1 tablespoon sake
• 1 tablespoon mirin (rice wine)
• 2 tablespoons Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
For the noodles:
• 4 packets pre-steamed yakisoba noodles
• 120 grams thinly sliced pork
• 4 to 5 cabbage leaves
• 2 small bell peppers
• 100 grams (½ pack) bean sprouts
• 3 tablespoons nikukasu (chopped, rendered pork fat)
• 3 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
• Salt and pepper
• 3 tablespoons shredded beni shōga (red pickled ginger)
• 2 tablespoons aonori seaweed powder
• A large handful of katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes)
• Mayonnaise (optional)
Mix the sauce ingredients together in a bowl.
Dump the noodle packets into a colander and rinse quickly under running water.
Cut the pork into 2-centimeter pieces. Roughly chop up the cabbage. De-seed and slice the bell peppers. Cut the ends off the bean sprouts.
Heat up a griddle, wok or large frying pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of lard or oil. Add the nikukasu and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the pork, cabbage and bell pepper and stir-fry until the vegetables are tender and the pork is cooked. Add the bean sprouts and stir-fry for a minute. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Remove and set aside.
Wipe out the griddle or pan, heat over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of lard or oil. Add the noodles and stir-fry while untangling them with cooking chopsticks. Press the noodles down using a spatula, and leave for 2 to 3 minutes until lightly browned. Turn the noodles over and repeat on the other side.
Lower the heat to medium, and add the cooked pork and vegetables. Mix well to combine. Push everything to one side of the pan, and add the sauce to the empty surface so that it sizzles. Mix until the noodles are well-coated in the sauce.
Arrange the noodles on serving plates. Top with the katsuobushi, aonori seaweed and beni shōga. Add mayonnaise if desired and serve immediately.
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