Kikouchi soba workshop

Soba noodles are a daily staple in the Japanese diet, eaten at all times of the day and night, hot and cold.  Convenience stores stock dried instant soba noodles, and supermarkets sell machine made versions, but there is nothing that will ever come close to artisanal soba made by experienced hands.  It takes years of apprenticeship and many more of professional experience to master the art of soba making.  When one is in the presence of a crafted plate of handmade soba, demonstrating a light delicate flavor, with refined texture and a sweet buckwheat aroma, it renders the diner incapable of doing anything other than fervently slurping away.

Wanting to learn more about this Japanese soul food that I grew up on, last year I took a soba making class with Akila Inouye, Master Chef and Founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy and Sonoko Sakai, Japanese cookbook author and food writer.  A beginning introduction class teaching the classic Nihachi soba barely grazed the surface of this Japanese tradition.  With only 2 ingredients- flour and water- soba making proved to be much more difficult than I had imagined, and a testimony to soba artisans who for many years have practiced precision, technique and finesse.  Shortly after I took the class through their mazumizu website, I got to taste a variety of soba preparations at their week long soba pop-up restaurant last summer.  It was here that I got inspired to take another class with them to learn Kikouchi soba making, made with 100% buckwheat flour using shin-soba, the first crop of buckwheat from Kitawase in Japan’s Gunma prefecture.

Mazumizu, the name of their website, means ‘first, water (and everything else will follow)’, reflecting the principle of simplicity and fluidity in soba making.  As usual, classes were conducted at Sonoko’s beautiful home in Los Angeles, and for my second round of soba classes I recruited my buddy Chef Ludo Lefebvre to join along with me.

Master artisan Akila went through a step by step demonstration on how to make these delicate gluten-free buckwheat noodles, while describing the history and culture of soba.  Unlike the classic Nihachi soba which uses an 8:2 ratio of buckwheat to wheat flour, 100% buckwheat Kikouchi soba is more fragile and difficult to make.  After sifting the flour using a special Japanese fine sieve, add a carefully measured portion of water, about 40% of the total weight of flour.  Minor adjustments must be made depending on the humidity and temperature of that day, which comes with experience.

Once water is added to the sifted flour, use your hands to gently yet swiftly mix it up in a rotating motion.  Once the mixture is moist yet crumbly, gather it all to one side and gently compress it into a solid oblong roll.  Then repeat the process of folding and kneading using the heel of your palms as you lean forward into the bowl with feet shoulder width apart to apply gentle yet firm and slow pressure.  After reaching the desired texture, shape the dough into a ball and using your palm, flatten the ball into a disc.

Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough in diagonal directions until the dough is evenly 1.5 mm thick and rectangular shaped.  Fold the dough in four, sprinkling a generous amount of uchiko flour for dusting in between to prevent sticking.

If you can get to this stage without making holes in the thinly rolled out dough, the real challenge comes in the cutting.  Using a special soba kiri cleaver that has a long and perfectly straight and even edge, cut the soba in even 1.3mm widths in a relaxed posture.

Rhythmic clicks of the knife hitting the cutting board, if done right, sound like horses galloping in the distance, and only experience can yield perfectly even thin long strands of buckwheat soba.

The grand finale of dusting off freshly cut bunches of soba gives a huge sense of accomplishment and peace…

…and the delicate strands of soba are laid to rest in a lacquer box until it is time to boil and serve.

After the demonstration, it came time for the students to get their hands dirty, and it wasn’t until then that everybody realized that Akila only made it look easy.  Given the small class size, every student got one-on-one attention and guidance from both Akila and Sonoko.  We measured, we mixed, we kneaded, we molded, we pressed, we rolled and cut, cut, cut.

Chef Ludo was a natural, and only required guidance when it came time for cutting.  Cutting soba with the soba cleaver is a completely different skill requiring different body muscles and pressure distribution, but he got used to it fairly quickly and within minutes presented a beautiful sample of thick hearty inaka-style (country style) soba.

Second time around was a little easier for me, but getting every strand of soba to be exactly the same width is nearly impossible.

No part of the soba making process goes to waste, and as we finished up our soba workshop, Akila emerged from the kitchen with a batch of freshly fried soba chips.  The uneven ends of folded soba sheets that are left over after cutting were deep fried and salted to make crunchy aromatic chips that made for a great otsumami snack.

Sonoko made kabocha amani, slowly cooked Japanese pumpkin with just a small amount of sugar and salt to retain the natural sweetness, flavors and vibrant colors of the vegetables.

For lunch, the soba teachers also boiled a batch of Kikouchi soba that they made, served with homemade bonito based dipping sauce, chopped scallions and wasabi.  The delicate pure buckwheat flour noodles had a faint nutty fragrance and a wholesome rustic flavor with just the right amount of elasticity and chewiness, or koshi.

Freshly grated wasabi from Japan was mild and flavorful.

As we enjoyed a light, nutritious and delicious Kikouchi soba lunch together under the warm Los Angeles sun in Sonoko’s courtyard, we all chatted about the little blunders that we made during our soba making, and how we’re going to enjoy our homemade soba for dinner that evening.  A little swig of cold sake from a small distillery in Japan helped the conversation roll along on this lazy Sunday morning where we learned the beauty and allure of a delicious centuries old culinary tradition.

Mazumizu

Keep checking back with the mazumizu website for upcoming soba events and classes by Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai.

***March 15,2011 soba event: Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai will be doing a soba demonstration in conjunction with Chef Jonathan Sundstrom from Lark restaurant in Seattle at Surfas Cafe LA.  They will be showing classic and modern interpretations of soba for local chefs.  The event is FREE for all chefs and people in the food and beverage industry, but space is limited!  Click HERE for a link to the event. 

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Soba Pop at Breadbar on 3rd street

蕎麦  SOBA

…is Japan’s soul food.  Full of history and tradition, these simple but satisfying buckwheat noodles are loved by Japanese people of all ages.  Soba is an important part of the Japanese diet, making frequent appearances as classic kamo nanban lunches, warm nameko soba dinners, quick morisoba eats on a train station platform, and even take-out zarusoba packs at convenience stores.  Many holidays and celebrations embrace soba as a part of the festivities, and New Years Eve is not complete without a bowl or two of toshikoshi soba to bring in the new year.  Soba is rich in amino acids and antioxidants, only one of many reasons for its popularity in Japan.  Although I grew up eating soba like most Japanese people, I have to admit that as a child I always preferred udon noodles.  It’s only recently that I’ve started to really appreciate the craft, tradition and flavors of soba.

To get a glimpse into the world of soba, I recently took a soba making class with soba master Akila Inouye and soba teacher Sonoko Sakai through their website called mazumizu.  Learning about the complexities of soba making and taking on the challenge of trying to make these delicate noodles from scratch gave me a whole new perspective on this food.  The bowl of duck and eggplant soba that I had at Sonoko’s house at the end of the class was one of the most delicious and enjoyable bowls of noodles that I have ever tasted.  I was ecstatic to hear that they were sharing their passion and their craft with the people of Los Angeles in a 1-week pop-up restaurant event at the Breadbar.

Akila Inouye, the Founder and Master Chef of Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo, Japan, has been teaching soba making for more than 15 years, and has trained many soba artisans who have gone on to open their own restaurants.  Sonoko Sakai is a bilingual and bicultural cookbook author and food writer who learned her craft from Akila.  Together they brought over 8 suitcases full of ‘shin soba’, the first crop of this year’s Kitawase buckwheat flour from Gunma prefecture in Japan.  Organically grown stone-milled buckwheat flour was made into two types of soba for the event, the typical Edo (Tokyo) style Nihachi soba, which uses a blend of 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour, and Kikouchi, which uses 100% buckwheat flour.  Sonoko and Akila, with the help of soba student volunteers, have been working extremely hard to make this rare and special dining event possible, staying up till 4 am with prep work, and making fresh soba all day.

Considering that it was their first pop-up experience and first restaurant venture, I was nervous for them when I saw the long and comprehensive soba menu.  Pop-ups often consist of limited menus, offering maybe 10 items at the most, but Akila and Sonoko boldly opened their Soba Pop event with a 16 item menu with different types of dipping sauces and 2 desserts.  Perhaps a little too ambitious, but they really wanted to take this opportunity to show Angelenos how wonderful, delicious and diverse soba can be, and they managed to pull it off beautifully.

Sonoko brought out most of the dishes to the table, including an amuse bouche of farmers market vegetables with puffed soba.  Purple potatoes, fingerling potatoes and Japanese pumpking kabocha were prepared simply as an amani, slowly cooked with just a small amount of sugar and salt to retain the natural sweetness, flavors and vibrant colors of the vegetables.

No part of the soba making process goes to waste, as seen in the bowl of soba chips.  The uneven ends of the folded soba sheets that are left over after cutting were quickly deep fried and salted to make crunchy aromatic chips that made for a great otsumami snack while drinking beer.

Roasted nori seaweed made by a shinise long-standing historical establishment in Japan, that has been making nori for over 300 years, was brought to the US by Akila and Sonoko as part of their 8 suitcase caravan.  These pleasantly crisp seaweed wedges, full of ocean aromas and deep flavors, were served with freshly grated wasabi.

I loved the asazuke summer pickles made with Japanese cucumber, turnips and radishes, and the carrots that were pickled in miso.  Green yuzu rinds added a sensational level of aroma and freshness to these crisp and refreshing pickles that made me want to reach for a warm bowl of white rice.

Braised donko shiitake mushrooms, carrots, kinusaya snow peas and konnyaku were served as a traditional nishime dish, simmered in soy sauce, mirin, dashi, sugar and sake, and served on age tofu slices.  It was such a pleasant surprise to be able to enjoy simple Japanese comfort food at this event.  These are the every day dishes that nourish families in every household in Japan.

Cold artisanal tofu, or hiyayakko, was handmade that morning for the event and served with a heap of sliced green onions, bonito flakes, ginger and soy sauce.  The soft silky texture and creamy rich soy flavors of this freshly made kinugoshi tofu is something that I wish everybody could experience- it’s completely different from store bought tofu.

Rounding out the appetizer menu were marinated soft boiled eggs, ajitsuke tamago, served in a cold soy-bonito broth, and melt-in-your-mouth Kurobuto pork belly kakuni with carrots and kinusaya peas.  For a soba pop-up event, they really went above and beyond in preparing an extensive non-soba menu full of traditional Japanese soul food.  Everything was cooked perfectly, preserving the exact flavors of how our mothers and grandmothers used to make them.

We started our soba dinner with the most basic way to eat soba, mori soba, where the Nihachi soba is served on a bamboo basket with cold soy-bonito tsuyu dipping sauce along with grated daikon, scallions and wasabi for garnish.  This is the perfect soba dish to enjoy on those hot summer nights with a cold glass of beer.  I love the simplicity of mori soba where you can really taste the soba flavors in its most pure state and experience the koshi texture and nodogoshi of how the slippery noodles glide down your throat.

Hanamaki soba was served in a bowl hiyagake style where cold soy-bonito broth was poured over the Nihachi soba and topped with a generous heap of aromatic cut nori seaweed.  Wasabi and scallions were served on the side, but we really didn’t need those extra garnishes, as this bowl of soba was perfect on its own.  The broth was a katsuo dashi base made with bonito flakes, koikuchi shoyu dark soy sauce, mirin and zarame sugar to give it a round gentle flavor.

In a tribute to the bountiful and scrumptious local Southern Californian vegetables , Akila and Sonoko created a cold vegetable soba dish for their menu, full of fresh Farmers Market vegetables like Japanese cucumbers, asparagus, Japanese pumpkin, heirloom tomatoes, scallions and shiso leaves.  Soba granules were sprinkled on top for added texture, homemade pickled new ginger for a little flavor kick and a dollop of toasted saikyo miso for depth and aroma.

One of my favorite sobas of the evening was the cold duck soba for the wonderful caramelized shigure-style ginger duck that I would love to eat everyday on rice, bread, pasta or even salads.  Cold tsuyu broth was poured over Nihachi soba and topped with deep fried eggplant, soft boiled egg, scallions, fried tofu, crunchy soba granules, shiso ribbons and chopped asatsuki chives.  Full of flavors, colors, textures and so many toppings, this bowl of soba was simply amazing and delectable.

What’s a pop-up event without some unusual and new interpretations on classic dishes?  Chicken and eggs are usually served over a bowl of rice as one of Japan’s most quintessential comfort foods, the oyako-don, which literally translates to ‘parent and child donburi’ in a playful twist of ‘which came first?’  Seasoned jidori chicken, soft boiled eggs, asparagus and scallions were served over soba in a hot broth for a comforting bowl of Oyako soba.

Toro toro pork soba with braised pork belly, nameko mushrooms, scallions, wax beans, yellow bean sprouts and mitsuba delivered what it said it would- toro toro pork that melted in my mouth.  In the same way that ‘pow’, ‘bam’ and ‘zip’ indicate onomatopoeic expressions of sounds, ‘toro toro’ is a phenomimetic Japanese word to describe how something easily melts like liquid.

In the same way, ‘kari kari’ describes the high pitched crunch and crackle of an object, in this case the crispy gobo fried burdock chips and dried shrimp that were generously topped over a meaty tempura onion ring, deep fried Japanese kabocha pumpkin, and yuzu over Nihachi soba and hot bonito broth.

My favorite soba dish of the evening was the Kikouchi soba, the only soba made from 100% buckwheat flour (all of the others were made with Nihachi soba, an 8:2 blend of buckwheat and wheat flour).  Gluten-free kikouchi soba is made with pure buckwheat flour and water only with no binder, making for a delicate and unstable soba that really tests the skills of the maker.  Done right, Kikouchi has an intense nutty fragrance and rustic flavor that is unlike anything that you’ve ever tasted before.  Due to the extreme difficulty in making Kikouchi, the Soba Pop event at the Breadbar was limited to 10 servings per day.  The Kikouchi was indeed intense and full-bodied, going especially well with the ground walnut mori-tsuyu dipping sauce that augmented the nuttiness of the soba flavors.

We finished our extravagant soba pageant with 2 desserts, a plum wine umeshu jelly with blueberries, white currants, Okinawan brown syrup and crunchy soba granules.  I brought a large bottle of Choya umeshu for the soba event, as it was BYOB, and this umeshu jelly tasted even better than that.  The other dessert was a Dattan soba jelly with blueberries, Okinawan kuromitsu brown syrup and soba granules.  Coupled with the soba granules, this savory jelly was like a vast field of beautiful golden wheat farms exploding in my mouth and perfuming my nares.

There are many ‘pop-up’ restaurants and events springing up in all parts of LA, introducing everything from street food to molecular gastronomy based cuisine to fine dining.  Soba Pop is an entirely different experience- it truly is a limited-time engagement that cannot be replicated, as Akila and Sonoko use the fresh new shin-soba crop of buckwheat flour from Japan that is only available now.  You can’t get delicious Kikouchi and Nihachi soba using shin-soba outside of Japan, and it’s a rare treat to be able to experience these delicate artisanal noodles at our local Breadbar.  Soba Pop is only open until Saturday August 28th, so hurry and come experience the wonderful aromas and flavors of real soba from Japan, made by a real Japanese soba artisan.

Mazumizu website

Log on to Akila and Sonoko’s Mazumizu website to register for their upcoming soba making classes

Breadbar

8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
310 205 0124

Random trivia:  Did you know that Dattan soba, also called bitter buckwheat, is a super food or sorts, containing 100 times more Rutin than buckwheat flour?  It is also believed that Dattan soba contains an element that suppresses the production of melanin, the cause of age-defining freckles, sun spots and skin splotches.