Mandelo Zaru Soba
Cold Buckwheat Noodles with Cocktail Grapefruit Sauce
I was originally hoping to write up a whole bunch of recipes for the Lunar New Year, but the timing didn’t really work out for me this year. Instead, I bring you my kinda-sorta-New-Year recipe on this, the last day of the year of the goat.
So why is this only a kinda-sorta New Year recipe? Two reasons really. First and foremost, this is a Japanese dish, and Japan transitioned away from celebrating the new year on a lunar calendar in 1873. Second, while buckwheat (soba) noodles are a very popular dish to eat as the new year begins (cutting the noodles represents cutting ties with the struggles and hardships of the previous year), cold zaru soba like this is more commonly a summer dish. That being said, the citrus which really brings this dish to life is an extremely important symbolic offering and ingredient around the Lunar New Year. In any case, it’s my website and my kitchen, so there you go. New Year Noodles.
Semantic digressions aside, I’d like to go on record and say that this is precisely the kind of food we should all be eating at the start of a new year. It’s light, easy to make, healthy, and satisfying – basically the perfect antidote to a holiday spent over-eating. The dip for the noodles (mentsuyu) is flavourful and rich, but light and peppy thanks to the citrus, ginger, and karashi mustard. Zaru soba is traditionally served with a simple mentsuyu, but I think that the acid and bite contributed by the added ingredients play really nicely against the earthy taste of buckwheat.
Now that we’ve gotten this far, let me address the question that’s probably on more than a few minds: what’s a mandelo? Mandelos are a delicious and, in my opinion, under-appreciated citrus fruit, more commonly marketed as a cocktail grapefruit. As I explain on the mandelo ingredient page, they’re not actually a grapefruit but rather a hybrid between a pomelo and a frua mandarin (which is itself a hybrid of a mandarin and a tangerine). They have much of the mild and sweet orangey taste of a tangerine, but with some of the distinctive flavour characteristics found in pomelos. They’re worth keeping an eye out for – I saw them in quite a few grocery stores this year, but the fact that they’re not terribly well-known coupled with the confusing ‘grapefruit’ moniker means that they’re frequently hidden among more familiar citrus or assigned some random name (which is almost never ‘mandelo’). Check out the ingredient page for help finding and identifying them. For substitutions in this recipe, see the recipe notes below.
If you can’t find mandelo, you can try a mixture of tangerine or orange juice and a little pomelo or grapefruit juice. Take care not to overdo it on the grapefruit, as you can end up with an overly bitter sauce. Feel free to experiment with the citrus element, but try to make sure that you use something with a bitter/sour component (e.g. lemon or grapefruit). Purely sweet citrus fruits like oranges or mandarins will not balance the flavours of the tsuyu (dip) as well. If you have access to any of the rarer Japanese citrus varieties (e.g. yuzu or sudachi), you could also try using one of those in place of the mandelo.
When buying soba, look for a good quality variety, preferably with buckwheat listed as the first ingredient. Some varieties are little more than wheat noodles with a tiny bit of added buckwheat. I’ve found that organic brands (of which there are now many) are often better in both taste and texture, but even they can vary in the ratio of ingredients.
The noodle dipping sauce (mentsuyu) is relatively easy to find in Japanese grocery stores, but it is worth paying attention to the ingredients depending on whether or not you want to keep this vegan or not. It’s also quite easy to make on your own with a few basic Japanese pantry ingredients. Basic mentsuyu is generally made with katsuobushi as part of the dashi stock, but you can easily prepare a version that uses only kombu or kombu and other vegetarian ingredients. I like and use this recipe from Just One Cookbook. Simply leave out the katsuobushi or use a little dried shiitake mushroom to make the recipe vegan.
The ‘zaru’ in zaru soba refers to the small bamboo basket or tray used to serve the noodles. It’s certainly not necessary, but it does make for a nice presentation for this simple dish.
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