My Japanese Soba Noodle Cooking Experience
What is Soba?
Soba is Japanese noodles that have been eaten since ancient times. It is a delicious part of Japanese culture and can be enjoyed anytime of the year, hot and cold, as different recipes, as a gift, people even eat it as a fast food snack. As part of Japanese tradition, on the last day of December, everyone eats toshikoshi soba (year-end soba). The tradition is said to have originated in Tokyo and become popular during the Edo period, with people choosing soba noodles over the thicker udon noodles because their width and length symbolized longevity.
You also have a variety of styles to eat soba: cool, hot, warm, tsuke (cool with warm sauce), zarusoba (served on a wickerwork platter, eaten by lightly dipping the noodles into sauce that comes in a separate bowl), etc. You can eat soba with something else on top such as fried tempura or kakiage (chopped vegetables and seafood), too. If you are in Japan already, you would easily find a soba shop anywhere. A popular way to eat them is at a tachigui standing soba restaurant which can be found on the platforms of train stations, a traditional way to eat them in Japan.
Experience Soba Cooking
The other day, I participated in a soba cooking class in Yushima (Tokyo). In the class, I learned the entire soba cooking method through 3 steps: koneru, utsu, and kiru. Each step takes about 15 minutes. This was how it went:
In a big bowl, you will see buckwheat. First, mix the buckwheat and flour with water, and knead it into one big dough. At this point, the most important thing is how quickly you knead. Since the buckwheat is easy to be dried or wet, you must move your arms as fast as possible. To judge the best quantity of water is also difficult. If you add too much water, the buckwheat will not become dough. If you add too little water, it will not be a dough either!
In the second step, you make buckwheat flour to be a thin square buckwheat sheet using a rolling pin. Before I started this step, I thought this was the easiest and most fun part of soba making. However, without a correct handling of the rolling pin, it proved way too difficult!
This step is to cut a sheet of buckwheat into the shape of the noodles. They use a special big knife to cut the soba bit by bit. We put a buckwheat dough sheet on a chopping board, cut it little by little sliding the cutting board into a pie dish. At this point, what you should be careful about is cutting the soba equally. If you slide the cutting board too sideways–like I did at first–soba noodles would look more like thick udon noodles (which is actually how my soba turned out).
Finally, Boil The Soba
After we did the 3 steps, we boiled the noodles. Here is a tip when you boil, when you add noodles to water in a pan, don't put them in all at once.
Next, you will wait for about 10 seconds until the noodles come up to the surface (in my case, as I cut noodles much thicker, so I needed to wait for about 30 seconds haha). After you see the noodles come up, move them to another bowl, full of iced water. By putting them in the cold water, soba noodles become more chewy and even more delicious, the soba master said.
Overall, the most important part about soba cooking is "speed". The soba master also taught me that eating soba just after you cook it is the best way; the shorter time you spend cooking it, the better it tastes.
In the class, we made a 6 wari soba, which meant the soba buckwheat amount was 60% and the other 40% was regular flour. Luckily, he served us another type of soba, which was 10 wari soba. I ate it and compared the two kinds of soba: flavor, color, taste and everything were apparently different.
The More You Learn, the More You Love Soba
The whole course was about 1 hour long. At the end, we could eat the soba that we made by ourselves. In the cooking class, we learned not only about how to cook, but also how to eat them. There are a variety of eating styles; not only eat them with soba chilled dipping sauce but also enjoy the flavor of the soba itself. Here are 7 recommended ways to eat soba and fully enjoy it.
1) Enjoy the flavor of soba
2) Enjoy eating soba alone
3) Enjoy eating soba only with chilled dipping sauce
4) Enjoy eating soba with chilled dipping sauce and spices
5) Enjoy eating soba with chilled dipping sauce and shichimi (seven delicious flavors) spice
6) Enjoy eating soba with chilled dipping sauce and wasabi
7) Enjoy eating soba with chilled dipping sauce and soba water
All of you soba lovers and I-don't-cook-at-all people alike can enjoy a soba cooking class in Japan. There you will be able to learn deep inner workings of soba culture.