Yakisoba – The wonderful aroma of local street food

What comes to your mind when asked about summer festivals in Japan? The rhythmical beatings of drums? People dancing in a large circle to the Japanese folk dance of bon-odori? Perhaps you think of karaoke recitals and folklore performances or imagine an array of stalls selling foods and children’s toys… All of these things you imagine are to be experienced and embraced by all your senses. One sense that may be triggered is the sense of smell from the sizzling sauce on a large, hot iron grill. So what’s cooking? It’s most likely to be one of the following: takoyaki (dough balls with octopus pieces), okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes), or yakisoba (stir-fried noodles smothered in sauce). The pleasant, inviting aroma of grilled foods that are paired with generous amounts of sauce are sure to create lasting memories of a wonderful experience at a Japanese summer festival that will never leave you. All three dishes are inexpensive, affordable Japanese soul foods that can be enjoyed at any restaurant offering Japanese-style grilled foods. Nevertheless, in the following article, we will focus on yakisoba and look into what makes this dish so special.

What is Yakisoba?

Yakisoba is Japan’s take on stir-fried noodles, contrasting with chow mein from China, pad thai from Thailand, and mee goring from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to name a few. Also known as ‘sauce yakisoba’, the noodle is flavored with generous amounts of fragrant sauce. Its origin is unknown, other than the fact that it was a popular street food after the last war, when ingredients to prepare meals were scarce and cooking with whatever the scraps that could be found was common.

Similar to deep frying, shallow frying ingredients with piping hot cooking oil was never a traditional cooking method in Japanese cuisines. It was not until after the war, when kitchen facilities were improved and gas cookers were introduced into Japanese households, that frying foods became a popular outlet for cooking.

The typical cooking process of yakisoba involves stir-frying the vegetables (generally, chopped cabbage leaves, sliced carrots, onions and bean sprouts). This is quickly followed by adding a sliced meat of your choice. After the meat, cooked Chinese-style noodles called chūka-men are added. All ingredients are then seasoned with yakisoba sauce. Finish off with a garnish of beni-shōga (pickled ginger) as well as sprinkling some aonori (the green seaweed powder), and voila! You have an authentic plate of sizzling yakisoba in front of you.

Another way to serve yakisoba is with a thinly cooked sheet of scrambled eggs, creating something similar to that of an omelet. This is called omusoba, which interestingly enough, is result of the words ‘omelet’ and ‘yakisoba’. This too is a popular dish served at eateries for Japanese grilled foods. Both regional okonomiyaki from Hiroshima and Osaka are served with layers of yakisoba noodles, with the latter having a unique name for the dish called modern-yaki.

It’s the sauce that makes the whole thing saucy

The key factor for creating the perfect yakisoba dish shouldn’t just be attributed to cooking the yakisoba noodles to the perfect consistency (not too hard, not too soft), but rather to the yakisoba sauce itself. The sauce used for this appetizing dish can be described as sharply piquant, and it is almost like a cross between Worcestershire sauce and the British brown sauce. The typical yakisoba sauce will contain various fruits and vegetables, saccharides, vinegar, salt, soy sauce, and extracts of meat, seafood, and seaweed. Though yakisoba sauce is generally thinner in consistency than sauces used for tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlets) or okonomiyaki, tonkatsu/okonomiyaki sauces can be utilized for cooking yakisoba.

Easy and quick options

Nothing beats an aromatic yakisoba cooked from scratch using a hot frying pan. However, that doesn’t mean Japanese do not resort to the convenience of consuming easily prepared instant yakisoba. In fact, yakisoba dominates a rather large share of the instant noodle market within the country. There are generally two options available- dried noodles and a seasoning sauce powder in either a packet or a bowl. The packet versions seldom contain other ingredients, so you still need to prepare your vegetables, meat and/or seafood to add to the cooked noodles. On the other hand, instant yakisoba bowls tend to contain dehydrated meat and vegetables but you may want to add some par-cooked ingredients in order to make the dish more substantial and all-around more nutritious. Simply take the sachets of sauce powder and dried ingredients from the bowl and pour the boiling water over the dried noodles in the bowl. Put the lid on and leave to simmer for a few minutes. Drain the hot water, loosen the noodles, mix the sauce powder and seasoning to taste, and a bowl-full of flavorsome yakisoba is ready in no time.
If you like teriyaki, you will certainly find this dish of stir-fried noodles with flavorsome sauce delectable. So go ahead, give it a try!