I've updated this very popular article a little bit and pushed it up from the archives, since it is the season for cold noodles now. I'll also have a followup recipe soon for the perfect accompaniment to zaru soba. Originally published in May 2007.
Most of Japan gets very hot and humid in the summer. To combat the heat, a number of dishes meant to be eaten cold have been developed. One of the main cold summer dishes is cold noodles.
Soba noodles, made of soba (buckwheat), are available all year round but are really popular when the heat turns unbearable. As with other cold noodles, they are prepared in a way that may seem strange if you're used to pasta and other Western-style noodles. Unlike pasta, most Japanese noodles, including soba, are rinsed rather vigorously in cold running water. This not only cools them down but gets rid of excess starch, which adversely affects the flavor of the noodles. Many recipes written in English omit this critical rinsing step: you don't just plunge it in cold water, as many directions incorrectly state, but you actively wash the noodles. Once you've done this once, you will definitely notice the difference. I've given detailed instructions for this procedure below.
Dipped into a properly made sauce or soba tsuyu, with plenty of spicy condiments or yakumi, there's nothing more refreshing to eat on a hot summer evening.