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An Experience in Making Fresh Soba

Chef Kotani showing the students the art of rolling.

Recent news from Japan reports that a popular hobby among Japanese men post-retirement is learning how to make soba noodles from scratch. I was excited to have the chance to observe soba fans here in New York trying their hands at this skill. I have enjoyed many delicious meals of soba, but this was a special opportunity to learn about the process of making handmade noodles.

Soba (buckwheat) has been in existence for 5000 years, and it came to Japan about 4000 years ago via Tibet and China. At that time the ground soba was made into dumplings which were then grilled or boiled. Soba traveled from the southern island of Kyushu north to Tokyo, where it began to be made into noodles around 1600. Currently there are over 100 types of soba throughout the world, but the consumption of it in this form is rare. It is primarily eaten as a grain in places like Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, and as a pancake in France and Russia. Japan is distinct in its enjoyment of it as a noodle, which has a unique taste different from that of udon and ramen.

A participant adds water to smooth out the mixture.

The health benefits of soba are notable, as it is rich in vitamins and contains bioflavonoids which are said to purify the blood and improve its flow. Because of this, it has even been dubbed a “miracle noodle!” Also, the duration from soba’s seed planting to harvest is only 75 days, so this quick turnaround time gives it potential as a crop to feed the world’s hungry.

16 lucky soba fans were able to learn how to make soba noodles at a workshop held at the Japanese Culinary Center under the direction of the soba master from Soba Totto, Shuichi Kotani. This chef studied with soba masters for a decade in Tokyo before coming to NYC, and he was eager to share his knowledge with the enthusiastic participants.

Students rolling out their dough post-kneading.
14-year old Winston Trope skillfully handling the knife to cut the dough into noodles.

Soba making starts by putting a combination of 20% wheat flour and 80% buckwheat flour through a sieve. The contents are then hydrated with 42% water in relation to the flour’s weight, more moisture than you would need for pasta or bread. Kneading is the second step, which Kotani highlighted as soba making’s most important aspect. If you don’t do it properly and the dough is weak, the noodles will disintegrate when boiled. He also emphasized kneading from the same angle and with the same force each time in order to create an even final product.

Next Kotani placed the mixture on the counter and began rolling it out, forming a large square. After folding the square in two, he began methodically cutting the noodles at an enviable speed. Then he left it to the students to pair up and try out everything that he had demonstrated. Kotani made rounds of the room, helping participants with their kneading, rolling and cutting techniques.

The meal offered by Kotani was Kamo Seiro, duck and al dente soba noodles garnished with shiitake, scallions and yuzu rind.

While watching the students work, I took a moment to speak with the youngest participant, 14-year old Winston Trope. He was a regular at center classes and shared, “I love cooking Japanese food, and I’m especially interested in noodles!” Trope found the kneading challenging, but said that the rolling was no problem. Similar sentiments were echoed by young couple Elizabeth Wachstein and Eric Shahinian. “Overall it was easier than we thought, but the kneading was the hardest!” Eric was a devoted sobaphile, but Elizabeth would be trying soba for the first time.

At the end of the night Kotani prepared a soba dish for participants to enjoy, and the noodles had a firm texture and a wonderful fragrance. They were served with simmered duck and specially prepared dipping sauce, which I found complemented the rich, buckwheat flavor. Looking around at the participants’ satisfied faces, it was clear that they too had experienced the miracle of soba.

—————– Reported by Stacy Smith

Info: Japanese Culinary Center
711 3rd Ave. (on 45th St.), New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-661-3333 /
Soba Totto
211 43rd St., (bet. 2nd & 3rd Aves.), New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-557-8200 /