This post is humbly dedicated to my Japanese friend, Takami
“Love learning for its own sake,
and connect a wide array of ideas
from different fields of study and disciplines.
~ Robert Green
A Culinary Experiment: Making Soba Noodles
My partner and I are not professional cooks, but we do enjoy a fun culinary challenge. We’ve wanted to try making fresh homemade soba noodles since we came across a recipe for them in our pasta-making cookbook. Soba (そば or 蕎麦?) is the Japanese name for buckwheat. It is synonymous with a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour. Soba noodles are served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup (Wikipedia).
We bought regular Canadian buckwheat flour and we were all set to try making fresh soba noodles when we read online about the disastrous outcomes others had experienced using North American processed buckwheat flour to try to make soba noodles. We later learned that Japanese buckwheat is processed very differently than North American buckwheat flour and that using Japanese buckwheat flour makes all the difference between success and failure of homemade noodles.
Then we found a great online post, How to Make Buckwheat Noodles From Scratch, an informative article about making soba noodles at home. It listed two name brands of buckwheat flour that worked well for making homemade noodles. I was thrilled to know which buckwheat flour brands to look for.
We especially love a good culinary project where we have to sleuth out new and interesting ingredients, so this project was extra fun. And we are always looking for an excuse to visit our favourite Asian supermarket—so off we went to hunt down the proper flour for our soba noodle project.
We love to cook with seasonal ingredients, so when the new green onions appeared at the farmers market this summer, I thought of making a cold soba noodle salad, a perfect meal for the hot, height of summer heat.
At the Asian SUPERMarket
It turns out that Calgary’s largest Asian supermarket, to our disappointment, has only a small part of one aisle devoted to Japanese ingredients and, sadly, there was no Japanese buckwheat flour to be found, let alone the particular brand we were looking for.
We noticed a young Japanese woman perusing the dried soba noodles. We asked her where we might be able to find Japanese buckwheat flour in the city. She was very gracious and willing to be of assistance but was highly doubtful that we’d find any in Calgary.
Then she looked at us quizzically, “What do you need it for?”, she inquired.
“To make homemade soba noodles”, we replied.
A perplexed look came across her face.
“Why would you want to do that?”, she asked, incredulously.
“Because it’s fun!”, we replied.
But she wasn’t buying that. She told us that she didn’t know anyone who made their own soba noodles. She clearly thought it was odd that we would want to make fresh noodles at home. She simply couldn’t see any reason to go to all that trouble and suggested that we just buy one of the many good dried soba noodles from the market. She pointed out her favourite brand.
We knew she may be right. But we were enjoying our project.
We finally found some finely milled bulk buckwheat flour at our local natural foods store that looked promising. We took heart because the flour looked so much like the photos we’d seen of Japanese buckwheat flour and decided to give this mystery buckwheat flour a try.
Going For It:
Traditionally, fresh soba noodles are prepared entirely by hand, but we opted to use our pasta maker to roll and cut the dough, as we didn’t think we had the skills to do it with any precision.
Though not traditional, our pasta-making book suggested tossing the freshly cut soba noodles in a bit of flour and separating them to keep the noodles from sticking together. So far, so good. Everything seemed to be coming along nicely (except that we noticed the noodles seemed extremely fragile and were starting to break…).
Right up until the time we cooked the noodles, we thought for sure we were on the right track to making our own homemade soba noodles. But the result after cooking was a sorry mess of inedible soggy broken noodles with improper texture—they were much too soft and fragile. In fact, they were horrible:
We laughed. We knew we were taking a risk using the mystery buckwheat flour. The young Japanese woman at the Asian market seemed to foreshadow our outcome: we discarded the entire batch of homemade noodles, put on a new pot of boiling water and cooked some purchased dry soba noodles. They turned out perfectly and I proceeded to make one of my own soba noodle recipes—a delicious summer salad of cold soba noodles tossed with green onions, lightly steamed green beans and grilled chicken on a bed of young salad greens with an Asian dressing. I garnished the salad with some roasted nori strips. This, in my humble opinion, is a perfect summer salad.
While this particular batch of soba noodles was a disaster, our experimental results are inconclusive—we still can’t say for sure whether it will be possible for us to make good soba noodles until we try making it with proper Japanese buckwheat flour. Stay tuned. When we get our hands on some, we’ll try this experiment again.
The Fun is in the Journey
We truly had a lot of fun with this whole project—so much so that we both agreed that we can’t wait to try making homemade soba noodles again. But, what we’d love to do even more is visit an authentic Japanese soba noodle restaurant and taste fresh soba noodles made by a true soba master.
The Soba Master
It’s no big surprise that our soba noodles didn’t turn out on our first try, especially because we had no idea what kind of buckwheat flour we were using. But, even if we had the proper flour, it would be presumptuous indeed to think we could simply bang out excellent soba noodles on our first go—fresh, authentic soba noodle-making is an art form requiring many years of experience to perfect.
Making Soba Noodles at Matsugen:
For you foodies out there, here’s another excellent video showing the fascinating process of making soba noodles, as demonstrated by a Japanese soba master at Matsugen in New York City. This video shows the entire process, right from grinding the buckwheat grain to preparing the finished cooked noodles :
All photographs by madlyinlovewithlife; © 2014 madlyinlovewithlife