The Japanese buckwheat noodles called soba are refreshing and head-clearing. Their sharp corners are the freshly-pressed suit to ramen's wrinkled linen tangle, the edge of each noodle and every flavor clearly defined. Often served cool, with just a thin dipping sauce, soba doesn't hide under a blanket of tomato sauce; there are no slices of pork belly sharing savory juices. When made freshly and properly, naked soba noodles put the subtle flavors of nutty buckwheat on display.
In her book Japanese Farm Food, Nancy Singleton Hachisu points out that these days, dried noodles have mostly replaced homemade udon or soba in the Japanese home kitchen. It's too bad: "Soba is a delicate and nuanced food experience where freshness is crucial to the whole process," says Hachisu.
Fortunately, the fresh soba tradition is alive and well in Seattle at Miyabi 45th. Here, chef Mutsuko Soma rolls out noodles fresh daily to make sure they are smooth enough to slurp, strong enough to dip, and subtle enough in presentation to let the quiet flavors of buckwheat whisper in each diner's mouth.
I asked Soma what makes truly great soba. "Soba is a simple dish, so all the components have to be spot on," she answered. "The noodle should have a nice firmness, and the ingredients should be of a quality where you can taste the buckwheat. The water should be pure enough as to not add or detract from the nutty aroma of buckwheat. If soba is not made or cooked well, it will be too soft or brittle and it will not stand up to dipping or sitting in hot broth."
Chef Makoto Okuwa of Makoto Miami explains the importance of fresh, handmade soba simply: "Elasticity," he says, noting the strong texture. Soma agrees, citing the heavy, limp feel of machine-made noodles as one of the reasons she makes hers fresh by hand every day. As Hachisu says, "the noodles can be made two or three hours ahead of time, but not much more."
One of the differences between fresh and dried soba, Soma notes, is smell: "Aroma is important. The nutty flavor you get from fresh buckwheat flour is why so many people love eating soba noodles. That flavor comes across strongly when the flour and the noodles are fresh. You can even taste and smell it in the cooking water, which we call soba-yu," adding that soba-yu is considered a great hangover cure.
Commenting on the difficulty of making soba noodles, Hachisu says, "Any cook worth his salt can make wheat noodles and broth, so ramen is doable without much experience. As for sushi...there are masters who have studied for many years but there are plenty of sushi hacks out there. Soba is not something you can fudge. Rolling by hand is an art form that takes years of practice and creates cohesive noodles with very little binder beyond the soba flour mixture and water."
Mutsuko Soma started making soba noodles professionally only a few years ago, but it seems almost fated that she'd zero in on the Japanese specialty. She traveled to Japan to learn the art of making the traditional buckwheat noodles, then returned to Seattle to discover that her adopted home state of Washington is the largest grower of buckwheat in the United States. She immediately began working to open Miyabi 45th; she's one of only a handful of chefs in the country making soba noodles by hand every day.
The noodles put the restaurant on every Seattle critic's "best bites of the year" list when it opened in 2013, and former New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton called Soma's soba one of 10 noodle dishes to try before you die in an article for Food & Wine. Reviewers were quick to pick up on the subtle, nutty taste and the smooth but resilient texture of the fresh noodles.
Every day, Soma and her team make four to six batches of soba, each batch weighing in at three pounds, or enough for fifteen servings. Fresh noodles have a short shelf life—they dry out when exposed to air or clump when exposed to moisture. Soma tries to make sure there isn't too much leftover at the end of the day, so while she always makes noodles at least once a day, if lunch is busy, she'll make more for dinner.
The goal of great soba is to coax out the sweet, earthy song of the buckwheat flour. When soba expert Sonoko Sakai spoke on NPR last year, she emphasized that "you don't want to mask it with other things." She urges soba eaters to "really appreciate the depth of soba, of buckwheat, and the work of the artisans." At Miyabi 45th, Matsuoka Soma showed me what exactly that work entailed.
Making the Dough
Soma begins by measuring out the dry ingredients into a polished bowl the size of a car tire: 20% wheat flour, 80% local buckwheat flour. Because buckwheat is the textural focus as well as the central flavor (and its subtleties are easily hidden) of the dish, the goal is to use as much buckwheat and as little wheat as possible, though a little wheat flour is needed to add some gluten to make rolling easier. She sifts the flours into the big, shallow bowl, then begins to add water. Unlike the flours, this is not measured: if it's rainy or warm, Soma says, she uses less water. When it's cold, she'll use more.
The water flows in slowly, just a touch at a time. "If you add too much water at once, the buckwheat will melt rather than take hold," she explains. Because buckwheat lacks gluten, Soma aims for each grain to be touched by the same amount of moisture so the soba dough will stand up to kneading and rolling.
The unique properties of soba flour (which is made from the seed of a plant more closely related to sorrel and rhubarb than wheat) make it particular to work with—and also particularly useful in certain situations. "When soba flour is mixed with a small amount of water, it takes on a sticky, clay-like consistency," Soma says. "Goldsmiths would often use a small wad of soba dough to collect gold flakes left behind in the carving process, which they would then dissolve in a large amount of water to retrieve the flakes." This is one of the reasons soba is associated with prosperity, eaten for good luck.
Mixing the Dough
In the big bowl, Soma's hands swish around, making slow, smooth figure eights in the flour. The pace and repetition of her movements are mesmerizing, so it's fitting that she says that she finds the practice meditative. The dough starts out as small, distinct pellets when the water is introduced, but after a few minutes of swishing, more water, and more swishing, it takes on a texture like that of raw ground beef.
Soma shifts into strong, forceful motions as she begins to knead the dough, first into a loose ball, then a long cylinder, her entire tiny body pressing down and forward onto the log of soba dough. Every 10 to 15 pushes, I notice the changes in texture—the pockmarked loose mass giving way to a smooth, homogenous roll.
Suddenly things take a turn toward the unfamiliar as Soma begins the kikuneri process. Literally meaning "chrysanthemum kneading," the process (mostly known for its use in ceramics) uses a spiral rolling motion to squeeze all of the air out of the dough. Without air, the dough is easier to roll out and will produce a more consistent noodle. The resulting shape is like that of the bumpy top of a Chinese steamed bun.
She continues to roll it out on its side until it the top closes up, smoothes out, and looks something like a large, dough-based Hershey's kiss. Then she flattens the dough down from the top, pressing it into a two-inch-high wheel, the diameter of a dinner plate.
Moving over a few feet to the rolling table, Soma begins by using her hands to push out the dough, making it a wider, flatter circle. When it's about a third larger, she starts to roll it with shortest of her three long, thin rolling pins.
To roll and cut the soba, Soma uses an Edo-style three-pin system, so named because the wrapping technique on the various pins is what allows her to work in such a small space—like the confines of the city of Edo, now Tokyo. There is also another method: country-style rolling, which involves large piles of dough—and plenty of room.
The pins help Soma change the large circle of dough into a large square. She rolls the circle of dough onto one of the pins, and then unrolls it quickly, the dough making a slapping noise as it snaps down against the table. Then she rolls some more, diagonally, 10 or 15 times, rotates, and repeats a few more times until the circle has been squared and it's ready for a longer rolling pin.
In order to reach the entire batch of dough, she rolls the dough partway onto one of the pins, then rolls the remaining section of dough. The slow rolling process stretches the dough outwards. Soma aims for dough that is three feet long before she cuts the noodles.
That the rolling process pushes down as well as out is essential: Soma explains that a machine often only presses down, and does a less-good job of smoothing the surface of the dough. The machine process lacks the additional kneading that comes from the rolling pin continuously gliding over the surface of the dough from all angles. "The pushing and stretching process when you roll noodles by hand gives you a smoother noodle and a soft, airy bite" she says. Cookbook author Hachisu also says that machine rolled soba tends to clump up and cause noodle breakage, forcing the noodle maker to use a higher percentage of bland wheat flour.
Cutting the Noodles
Soma flours the stretched dough generously to prevent sticking and then folds it in half and then thirds, creating many layers so that it's easy to cut the long noodles quickly. She brings out her knife, a large tool that's shaped like a profile slice of an old-fashioned iron, and cleans it with what looks like a wooden putty scraper before she begins to cut. Soma admits that the cutting process could probably be done equally well by a machine, but she continues to cut the noodles by hand, her knife whizzing up and down the dough in one fluid motion.
A flat board serves as the guide, showing her where each cut is to be made. She makes about 15 cuts, then stops, picks up the bundle of noodles, and shakes out the excess flour before laying them in a metal box, which holds them until service.
Cooking the Soba
Miyabi 45th's menu lists about a dozen soba noodle dishes, some bukkake style—nothing dirty here, it just means cold noodles served in cold broth—and some with the choice of "seiro" (cold noodles with a warm dipping sauce) or "nanban" (hot noodles in hot broth). There are a few less-traditional options as well—say, Manila clams and tom yum broth—inspired by Soma's years at some of Seattle's top French, Spanish, and Northwest-leaning restaurants.
The noodles themselves are cooked alone in boiling water. Unlike ramen, which can be cooked in a basket, Soma says that soba must be cooked with lot of room to swim. "Soba flour can be very sticky, almost slimy when wet. It's what lends to that silky smooth texture of soba noodles when slurped," she explains. That stickiness can become a problem if the noodles aren't cooked floating loosely in ample water.
"We want just enough starch on the noodles for it to feel smooth, but not too much that it's slimy or sticky so we actually rinse our cooked soba three times in cold water." No salt is added to the water—the noodles stay plain until they meet their sauce or broth.
The cooked noodles are served quickly: as Hasichu warns, "their subtle flavor is ephemeral and evaporates into the air over the course of mere minutes." Luckily, with a bowl of noodles this good, there's no way they'll last long.