Coming through LAX recently, I got stuck in customs because of the food I was bringing home. I declared it, but the authorities wanted to take a look. “What’s in that box?” the agriculture inspector asked me. “It’s flour,” I answered. He bent down to take a peek where the duct tape had peeled off. I didn’t want him to confiscate my flour. This was fresh stone-milled organic buckwheat flour. It is the most precious thing I ever bring home, food-wise. I left all my shoes and clothes at my parents’ house in Tokyo to make room for 80 pounds of flour. “Don’t you dare cut that bag,” I wanted to say to the inspector, but if he did, he would smell the nutty fragrance of fresh buckwheat from Gunma. If he licked it for further inspection, he would taste the mildly sweet flavor, maybe even like it. But I didn’t want to encourage a tasting here. I had no time to waste. The flour needed to go into the freezer as soon as I got home. Luckily, the inspector believed me, “Flour is OK,” he said, and let me go.
What we must do to bring home what we need. In my case, it was all for the sake of making soba.
The Noodle Divide: Soba or Udon
Soba, the Japanese name for buckwheat and buckwheat noodles, originated in the highlands of China and Tibet. It has been prized in Japan since ancient times. Buckwheat is unrelated to wheat and belongs to the polygonaceae family of flowering plants, which also includes weeds such as sorrel and knotweed.You can divide the Japanese palate for native noodles into two groups: those who like soba and those who like udon. I was raised in Tokyo and Kamakura, which are part of the Kanto region in Japan where soba is the preferred noodle. In contrast, if you go to Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Nara and Kyoto, udon, the wheat-based noodle is more dominant.
If my grandparents or parents got demae, any food that’s ordered in, it was always soba; if we went out to eat, we almost always went out for fresh soba. If we weren’t eating rice, we were eating soba. It’s one noodle that you never get tired of eating, and the fact that soba is higher in protein than rice or wheat, low in fat, gluten-free, and loaded with minerals and vitamins, makes eating it even more desirable.
Checking Out Soba From Three Perspectives
Soba enthusiasts will go on pilgrimages looking for good noodles. There are three basic characteristics they look for: hikitate, freshly stone-milled; uchitate, handmade; and yudetate, cooked and served immediately. Soba made from a new crop of buckwheat is the most sought after. What I lugged back from Japan to Los Angles was hikitate flour. The buckwheat was harvested, threshed, dried and milled specifically for making soba. Even though American farmers grow buckwheat, such soba quality flour is not available in the U.S. Not yet.
Soba is served two ways, either hot in a soy-based broth or cold with a soy-based dipping sauce and condiments. I prefer eating it cold and plain, because I can taste the nutty fragrance and texture. You can enjoy soba’s nodogoshi, the sensation you feel when the strands of noodles are passing through your throat. It’s easier to do this than it sounds. Don’t chew the noodles into a mush. Leave a few strands intact, and swallow them whole. This will take some strong slurping. Go ahead, you are allowed to make noise. It’s fun.
Soba’s Moment in the Celluloid Sun
I had the most divine experience with soba when I was producing a film in Nagano, which used to be called Shinshu, a few years ago. This area is known for Shinshu soba. The soba noodles that became popular in Edo times are said to have originated in this region. Before noodles, soba was eaten in the form of sobagaki, dumplings. From the start of film production, I faced a mountain of challenges, mostly due to “Lost in Translation” moments between the Canadian and the Japanese crew. There were issues about snow, too much or not enough. Sixty tropical birds were brought in from various zoos to be used in the film, but the trainer lost many of them: The big birds ate some of the small birds, a few escaped into the snow-covered bamboo forests and in the end, the bird scene was entirely cut out of the film. I was under plenty of stress. But one day, the local contractor who built the movie sets invited me to his house for lunch to taste his 80-year-old mother’s handmade soba. It turned out that she grew the buckwheat, milled the groats and made the soba all by hand. I felt very honored to be their guest.
The mother spent the whole morning making the soba and some local specialties, including a braised carp. She sat on the floor by the doorway smiling, while her son entertained me in the dining room. Her soba was pure and delicious, I almost cried. I told myself that I want to grow old the way she had. I would produce buckwheat, mill my own flour and make soba noodles for people, I thought. This is the kind of producing I really wanted to do.
A Soba Master Reveals the Art of Handmaking the Noodles
It would be another two years before I finally got around to learning how to make soba by hand. I was doubtful that anyone would take in someone my age as an apprentice soba-maker, so I ate a lot of artisanal soba, read some books and finally found the Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo. At first, I thought soba making would be a man’s world, like entering a karate dojo. There was something slightly intimidating about the discipline. Everyone warns you how difficult it is to make soba because it is gluten-free and therefore has no starch to bind the dough.
Some intellectuals and philosophers have compared the challenge of making soba to the complex nature of human relationships. But my soba master, Akila Inouye, said, “Relax. Look at the grandmothers making soba in the countryside. They don’t go to school to learn. They just do it. You will be fine.” After my first session, I took home soba that was as thick as udon. My family didn’t mind, though. They were impressed.
I became so motivated about making my own soba that I went back to the academy to enroll in the professional course. My father thought I was going out of my mind, but everyone saw how my soba skills were improving. I went from making udon-thick soba to thin 1.3-millimeter wide noodles that gave the right nodogoshi. Soba was not only keeping me and others nourished, it also had a therapeutic effect on me. Making soba requires total concentration. If you don’t focus on the flour, the noodles will not come out well. So for a multi-tasker like me, it has been the greatest way to clear my mind and spirit. Making soba by hand is a very Zen-like practice. Plus you get a nice workout. My body feels more flexible and my triceps are coming back. Does this beat yoga? You bet. It’s all part of the journey I am taking with soba.
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 MazuMizuto teach Japanese home-cooking in Japan and abroad.
Photo credits: Keiko Shinomoto