The Art of Homemade Soba Noodles
Mastering the Japanese buckwheat noodles is notoriously tricky; Francis Lam picks up tips from a former Hollywood movie producer who gave up the fast life for the slow knead
I had the first line of this story written before I even got out of the car. “Dogs smell your fear,” it said at the top of my notebook. “But soba smells your anxiety.” I’d been snarled in L.A. traffic, late on my way to meet Sonoko Sakai, the woman waiting to show me the way of soba, but there was one thing I already knew about the meditative culture of Japanese noodle making: Stressed out and road-ragey is not the way of soba. If ramen is the pork-fat shock-and-awe of the noodle world, soba is what philosophers slurp—a simple buckwheat noodle, a cuisine of purity and contemplation. A soba restaurant’s menu may include a tray of noodles served with tempura, or maybe a tangle bathed in a lean, coffee-dark duck broth, as austere as duck gets. But always, there will be an offering of plain soba, just-cooked, chilled cold, served with only a small cup of seasoned stock for dipping. It’s completely fireworks-free, but in simple things lie complex pleasures, if you choose to discover them, which is why you often find this most naked of dishes offered as a course on its own in refined kaiseki tasting menus. Slip a few strands between your chopsticks and dip them—ideally no more than a third of their length, to really taste the noodle. Slurp them up, feeling the way they glide toward you; the Japanese have a word for what you’re looking for—nodogoshi, which means “good throat-feel.” Chew, and think about their texture—how firm, or yielding, or firm-but-yielding. Take in their flavor—do they taste nutty and earthy or round and mild, like buckwheat or wheat? Do this over and over, learning to notice the unnoticed: how evenly the master cut each strand; how much sauce clings to them; how the noodles change from day to day, season to season, as the flour ages and new crops replace old. Buckwheat is second only to rice as the traditional grain of the Japanese diet; the word soba means both “buckwheat” and “noodle,” so it is the foundational pasta of Japanese cuisine. It is a craft perfected through meditative union between dough and maker, and an art when there is an eater to receive and make sense of it.
So I knew how my time with Sakai was supposed to go: I’d get a crash course in soba making and maybe find it surprisingly easy, at least until I got a little better and realized how little I actually knew. I’d understand that the masters adjust their dough according to the humidity in the air, according to the variety of buckwheat, according to the grind of the flour, probably according to the song of the birds in the wisteria above. I’d fall into a trance while rolling out the sheets, while cutting the noodles. I’d learn to make better soba, and making better soba would make me a better person: more present, more grounded. This was going to be a story of losing myself in the particulars, of mindfulness and detail and learning to see how big the world is by learning to see its smallest alchemies. I’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi. That’s how Japanese food is supposed to work.
I finally arrived at Sakai’s sunbaked olive house, and she greeted me with her wide, smiling face, a scarf tied around her head, prepared for work. “My house is a little buckwheat monastery,” she said as she led me through its airy rooms: blond woods and cool, angular surfaces displaying little more than a book here, a book there, some pieces of art by her husband, Katsuhisa. I went to wash my hands in the bathroom and struggled to find the mirror.
“Soba saved me,” she said. A movie buyer and producer raised in New York, Mexico, and Japan, Sakai lived a big life in the presence of stars. But seven years ago, she finished producing a difficult film, one that burned her out, and she took more and more satisfaction in learning about noodles on her business trips to Japan. The day Sakai thought it would be a good idea to leave her clothes behind and fill her luggage with buckwheat flour was the day she knew her life had changed. “I stripped everything out of my life that I didn’t need.” Now she teaches the meditation of noodle making. “I like the scale of making food,” she said, and so she committed herself to the intimacy, the humanness, the smallness of a simple craft that you make, serve, and watch disappear over and over again.
Talking with her, you’re immediately impressed with how centered, how balanced, she seems. In her studio, a plain room with a work table and two windows letting in lemonade light, she showed me some of her flours: this one American, by Anson Mills, with rustic shards of husk; this one Canadian; this one Japanese, milled at an impossibly slow pace of two kilos an hour to make a flour so fine, so heavy, it feels like cream when you put your hands in it. That Japanese flour, she said, makes supremely supple and refined noodles, but America actually grows far more buckwheat than Japan. Farmers here usually plant it as a cover crop, essentially a by-product, harvested and stored carelessly since there is little domestic market for it.
She stirred some flours in a massive lacquered bowl, its black expanse as wide as her arms could stretch around. Mostly she makes soba in the ni-hachi style, which usually means that it’s roughly 20 percent wheat and 80 percent buckwheat. For soba lovers, the higher the buckwheat percentage, the truer the flavor, but since buckwheat is gluten-free, most noodle makers will add some wheat to help give the dough strength and elasticity. She added water carefully, then repeatedly jabbed her fingers into the bowl in sharp motions, making spätzle-like strands as the flour began to come together. Then, with force in her forearms, she pressed into the bowl with broad swipes, rolling the strands into pebbles, rolling the pebbles into a dough. Through this, I noted how the ivory buckwheat turned a gravelly gray when it took in water and how it gave off, I swear, the scent of black sesame. “That’s good,” Sakai said. “You have to talk to your dough. If you’re treating it right, it has a real glow.”
Sakai worked in elegant, nearly ritualistic movements. With one hand, she rotated the dough, using the other to gently pull in its corners, forming a disk with inward pleats; it looked a bit like a millstone to me, but she referred to it as “the chrysanthemum.” She rolled this on its side, the pleats stretching to meet one another at the point of a cone, which she then gently pressed into a near-perfect circle. Then came a series of passes with a rolling pin, a way of curling the dough around the pin like a scroll and stretching it to make squared edges, and finally folding and cutting. By the end, as she grasped her soba in little ponytails, patted them to puff away the dusting of starch she used to keep them separated, her noodles were not only beautiful and precise, they looked cared for. There was no waste, no scraggly edges, no subtly wavy noodles where the rolling pin landed a little heavy. They were not perfect, not quite, but I could see how close Sakai was to getting them there.
“Sometimes, my students ask, ‘Can I roll these through a pasta machine?’” she said to me. “And I say yes, of course, but that’s not the point. The practice, connecting with your hands, is the point.” Some forms of perfection you chase because they are objectively perfect, as far as you can tell, with your palate and your training and your nerve endings, which feel the resistance between your teeth and fire off the precise information to your brain to make you use the words “chewy” or “al dente” or “silky.” And some you chase not just because you want their deliciousness, but because there is joy in losing yourself to them.
I scaled out some flour and made a few batches of my own soba with Sakai’s gentle words of guidance: “The chrysanthemum should look like a flower. Yours looks a little like a face. That’s been punched.” And so I worked on the pleating, again. Worked on the rolling, again. Worked on the folding and worked on the cutting, until she said, “Hey, your noodles look really nice!” Only I didn’t dust them with enough starch, and they glued themselves together. Start over. Again. But with each batch, knowing Sakai was watching me, I could focus on feeling the stretch of the dough, feeling every movement, feeling the pauses when I lost my rhythm. In that sense it was like yoga, a practice based in the sensation of being a physical being. Only there was lunch to eat at the end of it.
I came home from my lessons eager to start my own little soba life. I acquired. I scoured shops; bought flours, dashi, and dip ingredients, a sweet extra-long rolling pin, a beautiful knife, a traditional cedar cutting guide; and eyed one of those lacquer mixing bowls that would make a mortgage payment blush. I invited a friend over.
The humidity was like a living creature that night, and I couldn’t tell whether that meant I should reduce the water in the dough, or whether the fact that I was literally sweating into it was going to overhydrate it. But the water hit the flour, I could smell that sesame scent again, and I pushed on. I kneaded and rolled, but after half a dozen tries, my chrysanthemum looked again less like a flower and more like a face, maybe a pug’s face. I looked at it, looked at the clock, looked at my hungry friend, and skipped the part where I roll the chrysanthemum into a cone altogether. I rolled out the noodle sheets like an errant pie dough, tearing it in places where I rolled over my own fingers. Who rolls over their own fingers with a rolling pin? I folded the dough up and cut through it not with the even, rhythmic strokes that Sakai says should sound like a horse’s trot, but with a halting, awkward series of ca-chunks, worrying that each cut would be too wide or too thin. I was a mess by the end, cursing my oafish hands, ridiculing myself for not being able to remember how the twist of the wrist should feel when handling the dough. “What kind of hack cook are you?” I sneered at myself.
My friend loved the noodles, chewy and nutty alongside some tempura mushrooms. A great cook and eater, he even asked me to teach him how to make them, so he could make them for his wife. Still, with each batch, better or worse than that night, I found myself furious at too-wonky edges, too-clumsy cuts. My soba life was lame, and I put my tools away in the cupboard.
Left: Sonoko Sakai | Right: Cooking Soba
Weeks later, I was talking with another friend. She’d lost the company she ran a few years ago in one brutal, bewildering morning. She wrote a book about it, about re-finding her life by retreating to the kitchen. In it, there’s a passage where, to get herself out of a funk, she spends the day making an exquisite kind of Chinese dumpling. They sounded impossible: The wrappers are actually tiny, crepe-thin omelets, wrapped delicately around the filling so that they don’t tear. “You made those to calm yourself down?” I asked her. “Because I would be ripping them, driving myself crazy, throwing things across the room.”
“Well,” she said, “I feel like it’s okay to make mistakes. I cook to learn. That’s the pleasure, not to perform.”
Building a Sauce for Soba
The dipping sauces that accompany homemade soba noodles employ two basic building blocks, used in different proportions. One is dashi, a seaweed stock flavored with bonito flakes and, here dried mushrooms. The other is salty and sweet kaeshi, made of soy sauce, mirin (look for “hon-mirin”, which denotes the natural version, made without corn syrup), and sugar. Both are easy to make at home and keep for quite some time. – Ben Mims, Food Editor
That word grabbed me: Performing and doing can be entirely different things. Performance is about projection, not acceptance, and even when I was all alone with my soba, I realized I was still performing the making of them—putting myself on stage, watching myself, criticizing every move. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have Sakai’s guidance on the technique, it was that I didn’t have her calm, her letting go. Meditation, it turns out, is not a spectator sport.
But then I got home and looked around. My wife and I were waiting for our baby to be born. I looked at a pile of toys, a wireless monitor, a trash can just for diapers. Speaking of diapers, which ones should we get? Because what I’m hearing is that getting your kids the wrong kind of diaper will mean they will grow up to hate you, or at the very least not get into college. Wait, sorry, there it is again. My anxiety. My fear that I’m always stressed about work, that I don’t see my friends enough, that I have no idea how to be a father, that my world is actually getting smaller and smaller even as I write about how it’s supposed to get bigger when you learn to see its little alchemies.
I suppose I shouldn’t add the stress of cooking for perfection on top of that. Not for noodles, not for this story. Next time, when the water hits the buckwheat and I smell the scent of sesame again, it will just be dinner, and that will just have to be enough. That’s a kind of meditation, isn’t it?
Pre-order Sonoko Sakai’s Rice Craft: Adventures in Onigiri, Japan’s Artful Fingerfood (Chronicle Books, Fall 2016)