My apartment was a furnace this Memorial Day weekend. We spent Saturday at P.C. Richards buying air conditioners but they can’t be installed until Wednesday. The thought of cooking anything (let alone making french fries!) made my face burn with anxiety. Just looking at the oven made me sweat. We ate pizza and Chinese food and Mexican food and anything we didn’t have to make ourselves. And yet tonight, I missed cooking. And our apartment had cooled down a tiny bit. A voice called to me, a familiar voice, a voice that tickled my ears just a few weeks ago in San Francisco. The voice was Heidi Swanson’s and she was calling to me from the cover of her gorgeous new cookbook Super Natural Cooking. She told me to make Otsu.

Heidi says on page 62, “Unlike many pasta recipes that leave you feeling weighed down and sluggish, this one makes for a healthy, invigorating, and energizing meal that will quickly become a favorite.” I liked it because it involved cold noodles in a spicy sauce–a heavenly idea for such a hot apartment.

At first, I went to Key Foods searching out soba noodles and tofu but not wanting to get beat up asking the manager where I could find the tofu, I moved to the more high end store on Union Street, Union Market. There I found most of the ingredients I needed, though not quite to Heidi’s specifications. (Heidi specifies extra-firm nigari tofu, I could only find the kind you see here–next to the Soba noodles):


Heidi says to use 1/3 cup shoyu sauce but I only had soy sauce, and that worked fine. (I’ll keep my eyes peeled for shoyu sauce the next time I’m in Manhattan–apparently it’s more complex than just regular soy.)

I just e-mailed Heidi to tell her how much I loved the recipe and she e-mailed me back and said I could share it with all of you right here. How generous! Here’s how to cool down, then, as you burn up in the coming summer months. You will need:

For the dressing:

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1-inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 tablespoon honey

3/4 teaspoon cayenne

3/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 cup unseasoned brown rice vinegar

1/3 cup shoyu sauce

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

For the rest:

12 ounces dried soba noodles

12 ounces extra-firm nigari tofu

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

3 green onions, thinly sliced

1/2 cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced

1 small handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped, for garnish

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds for garnish

Heidi instructs, in the book: “To make the dressing, combine the zest, ginger, honey, cayenne, and salt in a food processor (or use a hand blender) and process until smooth. Add the lemon juice, rice vinegar, and shoyu and pulse to combine. With the machine running, drizzle in the oils.

“Cook the soba in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water just until tender” (Note from Adam: this took literally three minutes, despite the package saying seven minutes–taste the noodles as they cook!) “then drain and rinse under cold running water. While the pasta is cooking, drain the tofu, pat it dry, and cut into rectangles roughly the size of your thumb (1/2 inch thick and 1 inch long).”


“Cook the tofu in a dry nonstick (or well seasoned) skillet over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until the pieces are browned on one side.”


“Toss gently once or twice, then continue cooking for another minute or so, until the tofu is firm, golden, and bouncy.”


[Side Note: when I did improv in college, we used to do warm-up exercises where we’d all lay on the floor and our leader would say something and we’d all repeat it back. I remember one of my favorite leaders–or, more accurately, our Emperor–David would have us repeat back: “Look at my beautiful bouncy hair!” (Trust me, that’s funny to be in a group of people all laying on the floor yelling out, “Look at my beautiful bouncy hair.”) Which is all to say that reading Heidi’s instruction there, I was tempted to yell out: “Look at my beautiful bouncy tofu!” Aren’t you glad I took the time to write this side note?]

“In a large mixing bowl, combine the soba, the 1/4 cup cilantro, green onions, cucumber and about 2/3 cup of the dressing and toss until well combined. Add the tofu and toss again gently. Serve on a platter, garnished with the cilantro sprigs and toasted sesame seeds. Serves 4 to 6.”


There were only three of us and we devoured this thoroughly. Craig came home and asked what was for dinner and I said, “Cold noodles” and he gave me a look as if to say, “Are you for real?” Yet, after he lifted his portion into his bowl and took his first bite, his face lit up: “Mmmm!” he sang out, delighted. “I didn’t realize it was going to have so much flavor!”

I told this to Heidi and she says, “Yay! This is one of my all-time favorite recipes in the book.”

Which is all to say: it’s summer. Why eat something hot? Eat otsu–beautiful, bouncy otsu–and be happy.

19 thoughts on “Otsu”

  1. when i read that recipe in her book, i was turned off by the cold noodles, too, but reading your post has changed my mind. i will be forcing cold noodles down my boyfriend’s throat for dinner tomorrow!

    have you tried her quinoa flour crepe recipe yet? tasty! however, i was disappointed by the “creamy, crispy” white bean recipe. i put those words in quotes because my dish did not turn out especially crispy or creamy.

  2. Shoyu is just the generic japanese term for soy sauce. I suspect people think it’s more “complex” mostly because japanese products currently have a much bigger mark up than chinese ones at supermarkets.

  3. Shoyu is indeed the Japanese word for soy sauce, but I do taste quite a bit of difference between Chinese and Japanese soy sauces. I first thought it was just me being biased (I’m Japanese living in Brooklyn) until I read on Wikipedia how Chinese and Japanese soy sauces are “not interchangeable.” I get my shoyu at the Japanese store on Broome Street in Soho.

    I enjoy your blog! Thanks for all the great ideas on things to try out.

  4. Sweet, the weather’s been getting warmer and warmer here in the bay area. I’ll have to give this recipe a try. Except, I’ll add thai basil, and chicken. (I needs my meats)

  5. Looks deeelicious. Here’s a little tofu tidbit- in Japan, you always hold the tofu in the palm of your hand while cutting it since resting it on a board may result in the tofu soaking up some unsavory bacteria or whatnot. You have to be careful not to slice your hand, but it’s easy since tofu is so soft anyway.

  6. I am not Japanese, but I have made soba at home and have eaten soba at soba places (there are a lot in the East Village). I suggest you go to an Asian market and go to the aisle where they sell soy sauce, and you will find sauce for soba noodles. Just read the labels or ask someone to help you. Soba sauce and soy sauce are a bit different.

  7. This is very similar to a recipe I make frequently out of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It’s a great one to vary by adding different vegetables: asparagus, thin sliced red pepper, snow peas, and broccoli are all great.

    I think I may try this version tonight. Heidi’s sauce is a little different with ginger and lemon juice whereas the VCFE recipe uses balsamic vinegar, I think.

  8. Just enjoying your blog at work in Japan so I quizzed my co-workers on nigari tofu. Here’s the answer…”tofu made with sea water without the salt (salt removed)” take that as you will. It’s apparently more bitter.

    As far as shoyu goes, Kikkoman is the brand every house I’ve been to here uses but there are many different varieties and the exported stuff may be none of those.

    Anyway, I like your blog. Thanks

  9. Okay, not to be a downer, but for some reason I cant take the consistency of tofu (and I used to be a vegetarian. Fun three years that was!) Do you think it would be okay to use chicken instead?

  10. I have had all the otsu ingredients in my fridge for a week now except for the soba, which I have to drive somewhere to get. I can’t wait to make it! It sounds perfect for weather like this.

  11. Oh, I hadn’t realized this was a cold recipe, I will have to try it now that summer is here!

    I have Heidi’s book and so far my favorite is the incredibly simple deconstructed sushi recipe – sorry, I forget what it is called! It’s a quick meal good for work nights and it is basically sushi – rice, tofu, scallions, avacado, sesame seeds and an amazing citrus sauce. Another deceptively simple recipe.

  12. I love Heidi’s recipes, but have yet to try the Otsu… I’m taking your suggestion, and running with it! Have you tried the Farro with Asparagus? It is out of this world!

  13. thanks for this recipe. I made a massive amount of this last night and there is no way it will last for the three meals I planned to use it for – I keep snacking on it!

  14. Re: shoyu vs. soy sauce. The key is whether the soy sauce is Japanese, i.e. shoyu, or Chinese that will make the difference. For the most part, Chinese use light and dark soy sauce, Japanese use shoyu and tamari, and each culture’s soy is different. The important thing to know about shoyu is that it is meant for use at the end of cooking because it contains natural alcohol which would burn off. Japanese would traditionally use tamari for long cooking. All that said, if you are buying Kikkoman or a similar brand designed for the Western market, it won’t make much difference. I think the point of the shoyu designation for Heidi Swanson is to encourage you buy a “natural” soy sauce with no fillers or preservatives. If you are going to use a lot of soy, however, try tasting different ones and you will find a very noticeable difference, similar to that between different olive oils. A good reference for traditional Japanese ingredients is the Mitoku website: http://www.naturalimports.com

  15. Hi Adam; I’ve read your blog for awhile now but this is my first comment :) – I just had to tell you how much I loved this otsu. I’ve been meaning to buy Heidi’s book for awhile now, and now I MUST! These noodles were a perfect cool, spicy dinner on a warm day. Thanks for posting it!

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