I had heard it said, more than once, that in Japan, THE BEST soba (buckwheat) noodles were to be had NOT at famous restaurants, but at the homes ( or at the hands) of experienced, soba-loving AMATEUR noodle-makers.
This is good news for those of us who live in Tsukuba City, since our Prefecture, Ibaraki, is SOBA COUNTRY, where a delicious variety of buckwheat ( Hitachi no Aki Soba) is abundantly produced, and where it is very common for THE MEN of the family (soba making requires a lot of muscle!) to be skilled soba noodle makers, who love to share the fruits of their labor with neighbors and friends.
Of course, some of these soba-makers are more serious than others. That is why my eyes lit up ( and my mouth began to water) when my friend Mr. Shiina suggested that he show me how the noodles were made. I knew that these noodles would be something special. Shiina-San is a real buckwheat afficionado, whose sister actually grows the grain up on a farm in Hitachi Ohta ( in central Ibaraki), and who is a member of a soba making circle which meets regularly for making soba noodles from scratch. I probably dont have to mention, that without hesitation I said -” Good idea ! !”
Though I knew at that moment that I was going to have a great soba experience, I could not imagine what was actually in store. Not only the best buckwheat noodles Ive ever had, made from freshly milled flour, but the additional treat of soba prepared in the MUCH more ancient way- as dumplings ( soba-gaki), and also in a novel form- as a tasty cake made of soba flour and sweet azuki beans ( anko). Even the dipping sauce for the noodles was home-made, and all the vegetables from the participants gardens.
I would like to share the experience ( and the recipes) with you, as I think that you might be able to learn a few things about Japanese culture from the story ( I certainly learned alot!)
In Japan, people take their hobbies seriously and as a rule prepare all the besｔ equipment they will need even before they get underway in their lessons. This often involves great expense. That is why you will more often than not find Japanese skiiers, scuba-divers, fishermen, bird-watchers etc., enthusiasts in any activity really, decked out in the best appropriate wear and with the best equipment and gear.
That is why I was not surprised to find that Mr. Shiina, and the other soba makers who gathered at the Oho Community Center`s kitchen, had brought with them an array of special tools, and proceeded to wrap towels around their brows giving them that authentic soba-maker look.
Another important feature of Japanese culture which was in evidence during this event was the UNIQUE INTENSITY OF FOCUS and ENERGY which I have so often encountered here.The first time I noticed this phenomenon, was at my first tea ceremony, years ago. The woman who was preparing my tea was going through the ritual, which on paper should have been quite boring ( all the fuss for a little tea). However, her deep concentration and focus somehow filled the atmosphere with electricity. A shiver actually ran up my spine as she slowly wiped the tea container with her cloth. Since then I have often found that same special GAZE and focus , even in the most unlikely places and situations- cherry blossom viewing time, funerals or pubs ( Japanese bartenders pouring beers!) I have often even found the old farmers hired to tend the bushes and weeds to sometimes be so deep in focus that they dont notice you walk by( thought some would say they just dont want to have to say hello!)
Mr. Shiina showed the same focus and intensity, as he little by little, slowly slowly, blended the buckwheat flour and wheat flour ( we were having NI HACHI SOBA- which literally means 2-8 soba. 20 percent wheat flour and 80 percent buckwheat). He continued in the same way to blend in the water, even so slowly and carefully, to form the dough ( the water would end up comprising about 40 percent this). Kneading a large ball required plenty of effort and it was at this time that I realized why the towel was so important- to keep the sweat from dripping into the bowl!
When he was satisfied with the condition of the dough, Shiina-San started to roll it out .
When the proper thinness was achieved, slicing was begun.
It was then we got the pots boiling. After dumping a lump of soba ( one servinging) into the bubbling water, it was boiled for 20 seconds after it rose up to the top.
At the same time we started to make soba-gaki ( buckwheat dumplings). This was extremely simple, great fun and rewarding to the tastebuds.
We merely had to mix in hot water, again little by little, into a pot of plain buckwheat flour and stirred. We did this till we got the right consistency.
To eat we just spooned out the paste and molded out dumplings with our hands. we dipped this in soy sauce and wasabi. Rustically delicious!
As I have already, said the resulting meal included the BEST soba I had ever had- BY FAR! Not only because of the fresh ingredients and skillful preparation. Not only because our appetities had grown strong after all the hard work and long wait before eating. What made it so very extra special was something which is another key characteristic of Japanese culture and life in Japan in general- everyone loves FOOD, and EATING is always a joyous occassion, especially when everyone helps out in the preparation.
It was truly a SOBA CELEBRATION!
I have written more on soba as a food and plant:
RECIPE FOR SOBA DIPPING SAUCE ( tsuyu)
100 cc sweet rice wine ( mirin)
100 cc soy sauce
500 cc water
200 grams dried bonito flakes ( katsuo bushi)
3 grams brown rock sugar
Boil the mirin to remove the alcohol ( 1-2 minutes)
Add water and soy sauce and continue boiling for another 1-2 minutes.
Add the bonito flakes and the sugar
This keeps in the fridge for up to ten days. You can also freeze it and defrost it whenever needed.
RECIPE FOR SOBA AND SWEET BEAN CAKE
Half a cup of buckwheat
One 200 gram can of azuki beans
Spread on sheet of plastic wrap
Roll ( like a sushi roll)
microwave at 600 watts for 2 minutes