When someone says, “Japanese food,” foreigners often immediately think of sushi and tempura. If they think of noodles, they usually think of ramen, first and foremost; but there is a quieter, healthier cousin of the bold and rich ramen, one that I have come to love – and those noodles are called soba.
A note before you read any farther—this Washoku Wednesday post is a documentation of the process of making soba and NOT a recipe (sorry!) We were fortunate enough to be invited over to our friend Yusuke’s house during Golden Week, where his father, Hiroshi-san, showed us how to make the noodles. While the ingredients are simple enough, the actual process making of the soba is an intensive undertaking. The measurements, amounts, and timing all have to be precise for the noodles to turn out right, and I’m absolutely certain we wouldn’t have been able to do this right even the hundredth time without the help of Hiroshi-san. Soba-making is his hobby, and according to Yusuke he often teaches friends how to make noodles. He was certainly an excellent (and patient!) teacher. Thank you so much!
What is soba?
The first soba I ever ate came from the 7-11 down the road. It came in a cheap plastic tray: soba noodles, a packet of soy sauce, a smaller packet of wasabi, and a couple tablespoons of sliced leeks. The soy sauce was mixed in a small dip in the tray with a touch of wasabi and a generous amount (all) of the leeks. Using chopsticks, I dipped the noodles in the sauce and ate the noodles cold.
The origins of soba stretch back thousands of years. It is said that it originated in China and came to Japan near the end of the Jomon period (10,000BC—300BC). Besides coming from a hardy plant—there are records of buckwheat flour being used to combat famine during the Nara period (710—794)—it is also very good for the body, possessing all eight essential amino acids and many antioxidants.
A more recent tradition of eating soba noodles emerged during the Edo period (1603—1867) called Toshikoshi Soba, or the cross-over noodle. It’s eaten on New Year’s Eve (Oomisoka), and the noodles represent longevity, resiliency, and letting go of the year’s hardship. While soba is easily found dry and packaged on Japanese grocery shelves year-round, many people choose to make these noodles by hand for New Year’s Eve.
Soba is found everywhere from specialty restaurants to local convenience stores, and it can cost anywhere between $5 and $15! (There are, of course, the ridiculously priced fancy dishes in Tokyo, but we won’t count those.) Nagano and Yamagata Prefectures are famous for their soba noodles; just last March we went to a special soba restaurant in Matsumoto!
There are countless variations of soba dishes, but here are a few of the big ones:
- mori soba (cold) — mori soba is simple: chilled noodles served on a basket-plate with chilled dipping sauce (called tsuyu) on the side. Zaru soba is similar, but with nori seaweed on top of the noodles.
- kake soba (hot) — kake soba is served in a hot broth (the broth is similar to the dipping sauce served with mori soba).
- kitsune soba (hot or cold) — kitsune soba comes with a pieces of aburaage, thin sheets of fried tofu, served on top of the noodles.
- tanuki soba (hot or cold) — tanuki soba is served with tenkasu, the crunchy leftover bits of fried tempura batter.
- tsukimi soba (hot) — tsukimi translates to “moon watching,” and the noodles are served with a raw egg that is supposed to look like the moon.
- nanban soba (hot) — nanban soba is served in a hot broth with leeks, and often contains chicken or duck as well.
Again, there are countless regional variations of these dishes; sometimes the dish has the same name but different contents! It’s just another thing that makes Japan’s food so diverse and interesting.
Soba is incredibly simple to make (or at least, when it comes to ingredients it is!)
The main ingredient is, of course, buckwheat (soba) flour. We were fortunate enough to be shown this whole process by Hiroshi-san, and he brought us to a shop that specialises in making noodles! That day, they ground the soba seeds into flour for us right away. (It was also cool to see the seeds in a different context, because I have it at home for tea! Soba tea is one of my favourites—it’s delightfully nutty and warm.)
Another ingredient Hiroshi-san used was something he called “medium flour.” It was hard to figure out what exactly it was, because the kanji literally just translated into “medium” or “middle.” Further research showed me, however, that pure buckwheat noodles are very brittle and difficult to work with—so many soba noodle-makers mix in a bit of wheat flour with their soba! I believe that the “medium flour” was in fact a mix of buckwheat and wheat flour.
And the last ingredient—water!
Like I said before, while the ingredients are simple enough, the actual process is intensive. It takes heaps of practice to perfect! But as for our adventure—
First, we went a specialty noodle-shop. They sold flour to make noodles as well as fresh and dried soba, ramen, and udon noodles.
Tatebayashi is famous for these flat, wide udon noodles:
The man at the counter came and showed us how they ground the flour fresh in the machine: he threw a bowl of seeds into the funnel at the top, where it fell down beneath the millstone and was ground into flour. An arm attached to the spinning stone swept the flour out through another funnel into a bucket.
While the machine ground the soba, the man took us to the back workroom to make what I call “soba goo.” (I asked Paul, the guy didn’t really give it a name.) He had Paul and I mix 1 part water (brought to a boil) to .8 parts soba flour. We had to stir vigorously so it wouldn’t burn!
It tasted okay! We topped it with a soy sauce mix, which helped. My allergies were acting up in my nose, so I couldn’t really taste much.
We also had some hot soba tea!
After getting the soba flour, we headed back to Yusuke’s house. (It was only the beginning of May, but it was really hot out that day. As I like to say, it was “a two-towel day.”)
We headed back to the house, where Hiroshi-san set out the ingredients and the instructions. He weighed the flour and set Katie and Paul to work sifting.
Next, he had Katie mix in half the amount of water. She stirred and clumped the flour bits together, added half the amount of water left, stirred and clumped, added half the amount of water left, stirred and clumped, etc. The more water was added, the clumpier the flour got.
At last, when she had two sizeable clumps, he had her knead the dough like bread until it was no longer sticky. They bagged the dough afterwards to keep it moist.
Hiroshi-san brought out a big wooden board to set over the table, dusted the surface with flour, and had her first press the dough out first with her hands, then with a long rolling pin. After a time, he had her wrap the dough around the pin as she rolled:
The dough began to flatten out into a large square-shape. Over and over he had her roll the dough and turn it, until at last it was very thin and had the texture of a shark’s skin.
At last Hiroshi-san laid out the dough and dusted half of it with flour, folded it in half, dusted half with flour, folded it in half…three times. The first time he did it, the dough was so wide and flat he needed to use two rolling pins to fold it over without breaking!
Next they transferred the folded dough to a smaller cutting board (also generously dusted with flour). Then Hiroshi-san brought out the soba knife…
Using another board on top to control the knife and the width of the noodles, they began cutting. Hiroshi-san’s noodles were beautifully thin and fine, and when he was finished, he gently shook off the extra flour and laid them on some paper towels.
While Katie’s were, perhaps, not as fine as his, they were certainly very nice! Much better than I could have done, that’s for sure ^-^
Proper knife technique (no blood in the soba, it’s just not done):
The ends, kept for deep-frying (they were so delicious they didn’t survive long enough to be photographed):
While Hiroshi-san prepared the stovetop, we stepped outside to admire the neighbour’s hedges. Apparently, the neighbour really likes dogs:
Next, time to boil the noodles! Once the water started boiling, we put the noodles in and counted to 20. Then we dunked the noodles in cold water, rinsed them in fresh water a couple times in a bowl in the sink, dunked them in ice water, and voila!
Delicious soba noodles with tsuyu dipping sauce!
Thank you so much to Yusuke and his parents, Hiroshi-san and Nobue-san, for having us over! We had so much fun!
Thanks for reading! Again, sorry I couldn’t post the recipe; I tried a few times to write it out, but I didn’t have the exact methods or times, so I figured I would just share the experience.
Until next time! またね！
Just One Cookbook: Soba Noodle Soup
Japan-Guide: Soba Noodles
Kids Web Japan: The Story of Soba and Udon
And of course, Hiroshi-san!