Soba Dojo - Making Noodles in Japan
by Alan J. Wiren
Sensei tells me I am doing well, but I am not so sure. When I first heard the words soba dojo they conjured up a vision of wiry young men dressed in white and shouting "YES, SENSEI!" in choral response to the question, "Do you want to make delicious soba!?"
Instead, I found myself among the ranks of Japanese baby-boomers. Men who were born in the years shortly after World War II are now reaching retirement age and looking to fill their newfound leisure time. Many have turned to the craft of soba making, which counts them among the people who make soba schools a popular destination on package tours.
My sensei is a gentle, middle-aged woman, but strict in her own way. My first mistake was with the water. Sensei began the lesson by holding up two small packets. One, she explained, was a mixture of seventy percent soba flour and thirty percent wheat flour. The other was pure soba flour. Then she held up a transparent measuring cup containing a quantity of water with a line dividing it into halves.
Emptying the soba and wheat flour mixture into a round wooden bowl, she instructed me to add half of the water and mix it with the flour. I set myself to the task, but when I put my hands in the bowl sensei immediately called for me to stop. Holding up the cup, she showed me that I had not added quite enough water, and made up the deficit before allowing me to continue.
Soba flour is persnickety when it comes to noodle making.
Although the word soba is used both in English and Japanese to refer to thin, dark noodles made of buckwheat flour, originally soba is the Japanese name for the buckwheat plant, itself.
The flour that results from grinding its grayish brown, pyramidal seeds makes
a dough that is too brittle for noodle making.
The noodles simply fall apart when boiled. That is one reason why soba noodles were so late to enter Japanese cuisine.
The thick, white noodles made from wheat, called udon, have been part of the Japanese diet since they were introduced from China in the ninth century CE. They are comparatively easy to make. The buckwheat that grew in fairly large quantities in the area around Edo (present day Tokyo) had found its way to the Japanese table long before them. Until the seventeenth century, though, it was made into a kind of porridge.
After the capital moved from Kyoto to Edo, the Japanese food in the Edo region began to change. One event that drastically influenced what people were eating, and where they ate it, was the great fire of 1657. Two thirds of the capital city went up in flames, and a large workforce was needed to rebuild it. The workers needed to eat, and restaurants, a virtually unheard of type of establishment, began to appear in answer to that need. Noodles were popular fare at the new establishments. They are quick to prepare, and serve as the base for a variety of dishes.
While the shape of wheat noodles made them popular, the taste of buckwheat was lighter, more interesting, and more suited to an environment where the capital was being reinvented, temporary work was always available, and many people lived for the moment. The pressure was on to create the soba noodle. The simple solution was to add a binder to the soba flour, such as wheat flour.
Soba and Society
In this way, soba noodles came into the world as a food of the lower class. But as the city of Edo expanded, restaurant proprietors began to open new venues designed to attract more affluent clientele. The surroundings, presentations, and the quality of ingredients were upscaled, but the dishes being served were still basically the same. By the end of the eighteenth century, being the judge of a good soba restaurant had become a mark of sophistication among the capital's elite.
Nowadays soba can be had anywhere in Japan, and different regions have their own, signature soba dishes. I had chosen a soba dojo in Fukui prefecture, so the noodles I made would be served in broth flavored with kelp and bonito, with a generous dollop of grated daikon, but first I had to get the dough just right.
After the first mixing we added the rest of the water. I pinched with my fingertips, then sensei told me to rub with my palms, but only three times for each handful, lest it get mushy. Just when I thought I had gotten this right, she switched to a new technique. The series seemed endless, but she is a good teacher; she let me do the work unless it became clear that I needed a demonstration.
Finally, I have kneaded the flour and water into a smooth, light-brown dough with little dark flecks all through it. Sensei pronounces it good, and we tip it out of the bowl onto a board dusted with pure soba flour. She shows me how to roll it out flat, then folds it into thirds.
Sensei sends me to wash my hands and when I return, she has prepared a small board with two strips of wood that form a 'T' on the upper side that serve as a handle and is brandishing a knife with a rectangular blade, wide as my hand. I learn how to use the board to guide the blade in the continuous cutting and rocking motion that makes noodles of the dough. When I am finished, the noodles are taken away to the kitchen and sensei shows me to a table in the dining room where I wait for lunch.
Finding a Soba Dojo in Japan
There are many places where you can learn the craft of making soba noodles.
The soba of Fukui and Hyogo prefectures are the most renowned. They are echizen and izushi soba, respectively.
Some, like Echizen Soba no Sato, where I visited, sell soba flour and all the equipment needed for making soba noodles.
They make and sell their own brand of soba noodles on the premises. One way or another, you can bring the adventure home with you.
You can find several soba dojo in Fukui and Hyogo prefectures.
Text and Photos by Alan Wiren and Miyuki Wiren
Other Japan articles by Alan Wiren
'To the Winner Goes the Eye': Katsuoji Temple
Soy Sauce: An Honorable Savor
Japanese Lacquerware: the lustrous charm of urushi
Shodoshima - Japan's Olive Island
Mobile Phones - keitai
Ebisu & Daikoku: Bringing Home the Bounty
Japanese Seaweed: Essence and Accents from the Sea
Japanese Green Tea
Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto
Hamamatsu Festival: the Children's Battle
Takoyaki: Icon of Osaka
Muroji Temple, Nara: A Dragon Runs Through It
Instant Noodles Museum
Wakayama Marina City
Living the Echizen Style