My favorite part of working in food is the unlimited number of new and unfamiliar techniques to deep dive into. I was mesmerized the first time I saw someone make soba noodles in front of me. He was a master and made it with 100% buckwheat flour. In Japanese, soba is the term for the noodle and the buckwheat flour itself. Buckwheat hydrates very differently from wheat flour, quickly becoming dry and brittle, making it notoriously difficult to work with. This is why many soba noodles are made with some percentage of wheat flour. He moved with swift, precise movements, not wasting a moment as he rolled, folded, and cut this mass, that was more reminiscent of clay than a dough, into perfectly uniform noodles. Any cracks in your dough meant irreparable damage and immediate failure. It was a high wire act I had to try for myself.
Soba is a staple in Japanese cuisine, carrying a lot of significance and history. Buckwheat came to Japan from China in the form of a porridge that Buddhist monks ate during long meditation sessions. After buckwheats introduction, it was eventually turned into noodles, which started gaining traction during the Edo period (1603-1867), a time prized for political stability and economic growth. There are countless ways it's eaten: hot or cold, in broth or without. My favorite is zaru soba, chilled undressed noodles served with a soy-based dipping sauce called tsuyu. When enjoying soba, the most important rule is to keep the garnishes minimal and straightforward. The star of the show is the soba, don't let it be upstaged.
Before we get into it, let's talk about buckwheat.
First of all, it is not wheat. It's actually a seed-producing plant belonging to a group called pseudocereals. Other pseudocereals include quinoa and amaranth. Each seed, or groat, has a hard outer shell, similar to a sunflower seed. It is entirely gluten-free (when not blended with wheat flour) and packed with nutrients like manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, zinc, folate, and vitamin B6.
Let's make noods!
This is the first time I've made soba, so I followed their directions (while not traditional) to a T. The recipe uses the food processor pasta method. You add your liquid to the flour with the motor running until it forms a ball of dough that chases itself around the bowl. Unlike pasta, the recipe uses boiling filtered water to pregelatinize the starches present in the flour. This helps create an elastic dough.
After kneading a few times to ensure everything was well incorporated, I flattened it out into a 6-inch disk and let it rest in an open Ziploc bag for 30 minutes.
Following the recipe, I dusted off my pasta machine, rolled out the dough after resting, and cut it into noodles.
This round was not entirely successful. The dough was way too wet, and I wasn't a big fan of rolling it out using a pasta machine. They were also cut too thick. But considering that this was my first time making it, the results were still delicious. I chilled them in ice water after boiling, and while a lot of my noodles broke, they were still chewy with the subtle nuttiness of buckwheat. That is why this is a journey though, I'm going to try a more traditional method next time. I'm also planning to use less water (but the same flour blend) and roll it out using my mattarello.
I knew soba wasn't going to be an easy thing to pull off going into it, but nailing the texture was more complicated than I thought. And I didn't even attempt the traditional hand-rolled version. The dough can get overly hydrated and wet instantly while simultaneously being hard to roll. But knowing that even an excessively wet dough can produce delicious noodles makes me want to practice it more.
I'm looking forward to honing this skill to be able to bust these out at a moment's notice, and I'll be sure to bring you along every step of the way. Let me know in the comments below if you've made soba noodles or if you'll give it a try now!