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Gourmet - Soba Making Party

I was invited to a soba noodle-making party in Matsumoto, and not knowing anything about making noodles I was intrigued to say the least. I joined a motley crew of university students and professional people, all of us new to the art of making noodles and all of us keen to learn a little something new. Guided by our teacher Chiemi in the kitchen above Utsukushihara Spa Shiraito no Yu, we quickly proceeded along the journey from ‘Spaghetti grows on trees doesn’t it?!’ to ‘Aaaah, so that’s how you make soba noodles!’ I left the workshop having had lots of fun and with a new respect for the makers of the humble soba noodle.

As you may know, Soba noodles (そば or 蕎麦) are different from other noodles in Japan as they are made from buckwheat flour and a binder, usually wheat flour. The Agricultural Standard in Japan actually states that soba noodles should contain no less than 30% buckwheat flour. Matsumoto is famous for its soba noodles and you will find many restaurants in the area which specialise in soba dishes.

So how does one actually make soba noodles? It’s not as easy as one would think, and the quality of the noodle depends as much on the skills of the maker as on the quantity of buckwheat flour they contain, as the more buckwheat flour they contain the easier they fall apart.

Firstly, take some flour and add a splash of warm water. Toss lightly until small granules appear. Add more water as required, and knead the dough until it’s soft and pliable and contains no bubbles. Be prepared to put your weight into this as it is quite physical work and not for the feint of heart. After you’ve tamed the dough it’s time to roll it into a thin sheet.

Sprinkle some flour over the rather large wooden *board, roll and unroll the dough around a large wooden *pole, all the while pushing the dough outward with your hands, until you get a flat and incredibly thin piece of dough. It’s amazing that it doesn’t fall apart and I’m embarrassed to say that by Japanese standards the noodles that we made were far too thick.

Fold the now very thin sheet of dough very carefully over itself three or four times, and then cut it into wafer-thin slices using a special soba *knife. The knife, like the board and the pole, is also incredibly large, I’d say of the Crocodile Dundee variety, and is it any wonder that there weren’t any questions at this point when Chiemi asked? At any rate there’s a technique to this too, and one should be very careful not to cut your fingers off, so use your knuckles as a support for the knife, no pressure is required here as the weight of the knife is enough. Once you have cut up all the dough, pop the raw noodles into boiling water for about 30 seconds, and “Voila!” a bowl of soba noodles is born!

These are delicious and ready to be eaten with a little soba tsuyu (a soy sauce based dipping sauce), with a topping, or as part of a soup dish.

Thanks to our gracious teacher for sharing her knowledge with us and for giving us an experience we shall remember fondly every time we eat soba from now on. It was time and energy well spent and contrary to the popular saying, I think you should try this at home folks!

* For interest sake, the wooden board is approx 70cms square, and the pole is about 1m in length, 3cms in diameter. Imagine 7 or 8 of these work areas and you can appreciate the necessity of a large communal kitchen for an undertaking of such a workshop.

* Having noted the size of the board and pole, is it any wonder that the knife too should be disproportionately large?

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