Japanese people like noodles a lot. Ramen noodles are one favorite, but when we say "noodles," we are probably thinking of udon or soba. Udon noodles contain wheat flour, water and salt. Soba noodles are made by mixing buckwheat and wheat flour with water to make a dough, then kneading it, rolling it out thin, and cutting it into narrow strips.
Buckwheat grows quickly in cool climates, and doesn't need fertile soil. It is sold around the world and is the main ingredient in some local recipes, like the buckwheat crêpes of Normandy, northern France.
In Japan, documents from the Nara period (710-794) tell us how the people used buckwheat in those daysthey boiled the grains and ate them like rice, and they used buckwheat flour to make dumplings and unsweetened cakes. When rice harvests were poor, they had buckwheat to depend on.
The soba noodles we know today first appeared in the mid-1500s. They are fun to eat, and by the 1600s people in different parts of Japan were eating them. Those were the days of castle building and urban development, and the bustling city of Edo (present-day Tokyo) was getting close to a population of one million. The construction workers and city folk created a demand for more places to eat out, and roadside stalls and restaurants sprang up to serve them. Some of those places featured steamed soba noodles (mushi-soba), a light meal that quickly became popular. Mushi-soba was made by boiling the noodles, rinsing them quickly in lukewarm water, then steaming them in a wickerwork container. Like soba noodles today, they were served with a flavored dipping sauce.
In Edo, soba noodles were a good snack to eat on an empty stomach, because in those days the people generally ate only two meals a day. Soba was the perfect fast food to fill up on between meals.
Later, soba evolved in different directions to suit a variety of tastes. Two choices are mori-soba (noodles rinsed in chilled water after boiling, then served in a mound in a basket), and kake-soba (noodles in a large bowl with a hot broth poured over them). A more recent variation is tane-mono (noodles with a topping of tempura, deep-fried tofu skin, edible wild plants, duck, etc.)
In homes today, it's common to use ready-made soba noodles that have been dried or frozen to ensure a long shelf life. But more and more people are now making them by handit's not easy, but it can be fun changing the recipe or shape a little, then tasting your own variation.
Buckwheat has plenty of vitamins B1
, as well as rutin and choline, and a growing number of people now see it as an excellent health food. Some of the nutrients dissolve and escape into the water, but they are not wasted if you follow the Japanese custom of finishing up the meal by mixing the hot water used to boil the noodles with the dipping sauce, then drinking the mixture. This makes a lot of sense, because the drink tastes good and is nutritious as well.
This light meal was prepared by Sugawara Hiroshi at Chikusen, a restaurant that serves hand-made soba noodles in Tokyo's Shimbashi district. He is considered young for his trade, although he has been making noodles by hand for 10 years. He says he takes into account the temperature and humidity of the air when deciding on the amount of water for the dough, to guarantee the best taste.