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.
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.