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Good Luck Soba

There are all sorts of foods, believed to bring good luck and good fortune, that are served on New Year’s Eve in hopes of bringing in a prosperous new year. If food can do it, why not eat it? There is one crop that is grown in America, which serves that purpose in Japan: buckwheat or soba, which is also the name for the long and lean Japanese noodles made from the grain. Like Americans who will eat black-eyed peas or pork sausages to celebrate the onset of 2011, many Japanese can’t finish the year unless they get their soba slurps in. The dish is called Toshi-koshi Soba, or passing of the year soba.

Soba keeps buckwheat producer Darrel Otness from Basin City in eastern Washington particularly busy in the fall and winter seasons, when the crop is harvested and shipped to Japan. There it is milled for soba grade flour to make the noodles.

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Darrel Otness checking on a buckwheat farm. Sonoko Sakai.

A multimillion-dollar buckwheat harvest

Washington, which grows more buckwheat than any state in the U.S., is responsible for approximately 60 percent of the country’s yield. (The U.S. ranks seventh in world buckwheat production.) This year it harvested 11,000 metric tons, worth approximately $7.7 million. “Everything goes to Japan, nothing stays in the U.S.,” says Otness, who is a tall man with a beard. He drives us to a buckwheat field to show how the crop is harvested. From afar, we can see two gigantic combine harvesters in operation — cutting, threshing and cleaning the buckwheat.

Otness, known as “Darrel Buckwheat,” works with nearly 100 buckwheat farmers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He has been in the buckwheat business for nearly 30 years.

“This year, some of the seeds came out immature because the freeze happened sooner than we expected,” explains Otness, as he takes a buckwheat reed and shakes it to show the tiny seeds. Nevertheless, he says, his business is growing.

Fresh stone-milled buckwheat flour is highly prized by Japanese soba artisans for their flavor, fragrance and texture. While Japanese farmers grow buckwheat, most of the agricultural land available for grains in the small and crowded island nation is devoted to growing rice. The Japanese heavily rely on imports from buckwheat-producing countries such as the U.S., Canada, China and Russia.

A presidential crop

Buckwheat has been grown in America since colonial times. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were the first to plant buckwheat on their land and recognize the benefits of the crop, according to the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural institute. “Buckwheat has a shallow root system that mellows the ground. It is also a winter cover to hold the soil from wind erosion,” explains Otness.

Buckwheat is not the primary crop for the Washington farmers who work with Otness. They grow a variety of primary crops including early harvested sweet corn, and potatoes, pea seeds and grass seeds, and wheat. They leave room to plant the quick-growing buckwheat, which takes just 75 days to reach maturity. The farmers grow buckwheat for extra income, to enrich the soil and to smother weeds, but they do not consume it as food.

Otness loves soba noodles, but all he can get locally are the imported dried variety, which his wife uses to make soba salads.

When you consider the nutritional makeup of buckwheat, it is too bad that none of the buckwheat grown in Washington stays in the United States. A single serving — 100 grams or 4 ounces — of soba has about two eggs worth of protein, but without the blood-clotting cholesterol. Soba is loaded with minerals and vitamins, and is gluten-free. In Asia, Buddhist monks took buckwheat on their long meditative journeys to stay nourished. That’s how buckwheat got to Japan, where it was turned into noodles.

Soba noodles are nowhere on the list of popular New Year’s good luck food in most of America, but they are available year-round in Japanese markets. (In Los Angeles, both fresh, frozen and dried soba can be found at Nijiya, Mitsuwa, Granada and Marukai markets.) They stock up at year’s end to be ready for Toshi-koshi-soba. Soba restaurants such as Otafuku in Gardena sell fresh soba-to-go on New Year’s Eve.

With the growing desire by many Americans to eat leaner and live longer, buckwheat may find life beyond those earthy pancakes that your grandparents probably used to serve — they knew that buckwheat is nutritious. When asked whether he would consider keeping some of the buckwheat he produces in the U.S., to mill fresh soba grade buckwheat flour, Otness says, “Yes, I am thinking about it.” He smiles and adds, “It is my dream.”

Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese freelance writer and film producer who divides her time between Tokyo and Santa Monica. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the former Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Saveur and Bungei Shunju (Japan). She is passionate about making soba by hand and, with master chef Akila Inouye of the Tsukiji Soba Academy, has created MazuMizu to teach Japanese home-cooking in Japan and abroad.

Top photo: Buckwheat seeds harvested in Washington state. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Slide show credit: Sonoko Sakai

Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese food educator, writer and producer, as well as a mobile Japanese cooking teacher and soba maker, who divides her time between Los Angeles; Tehachapi, Calif.; and Tokyo. She has contributed stories and recipes to the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Saveur. She is passionate about making soba by hand and is the founder of Common Grains. She is currently writing "Rice Craft, Adventures in Onigiri, Japanese Artful Fingerfood" (Chronicle Books -- to be published in fall of 2016).