Ramen is served hot, eaten quickly and typically chockful of pork fat, which makes it the antithesis of soba, a Japanese noodle that food writer and cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai believes is deserving of more American attention.
“Soba is the other extreme,” Sakai recently explained to a group of Culinary Institute of Charleston chef instructors and students gathered for a soba-making workshop. “We call it a healing food.”
Much of the dried soba sold in the U.S. consists primarily of wheat flour. But true soba is made mostly or entirely from buckwheat, which tradition links to longevity: It’s credited with stemming a major beriberi epidemic in 17th-century Japan. And because buckwheat is used as a cover crop in rotational systems, a renewed interest in soba could potentially contribute to environmental as well as personal health, Sakai says.
“If you eat ramen, you won’t be able to move,” Sakai told her audience. “I want you to all be healthy.”
Sakai is now collaborating with Anson Mills on the development and marketing of buckwheat flour, which is likely to raise the plant’s stature in the culinary world. The Columbia-based grain specialist is largely responsible for Northeastern chefs serving grits at brunch and steaming Carolina Gold rice to accompany lamb chops.
Whether served in a hot broth or plated up cold with a dipping sauce, soba is supposed to taste like buckwheat. “Japanese cuisine is all about the natural flavor of food,” Sakai said. Anson Mills’ buckwheat flour has a pronounced chestnut-like quality; participants in the workshop happily dipped their fingers in it and sampled it plain.
“Japanese people get high on noodles,” Sakai said. “It’s weird, very weird.”
Because soba is so simple — the beginners’ recipe provided by Sakai calls for soba flour, water and cornstarch — the shape and size of each noodle is crucial. Sakai demonstrated how to gently saturate the flour with water and roll the resulting dough into a square, drawing on principles that contradict what chefs schooled in European cooking have internalized.
“Don’t flip it around like that!” Sakai scolded. “This is not a pancake. This is not a pita. This is soba: It will break.”
Culinary Arts department head Michael Carmel grumbled good-naturedly, “I can’t keep my hands off it. It’s the Italian in me.”
Once every participant had produced a passable square, Sakai showed them how to draw the dough together “like a kimono skirt” and cut it into noodles, using a wooden cutting board and massive blade, which she worked up and down rhythmically.
“You’ll hear a horse if you’re good,” she said. “If you’re not, you’ll cut your hand.”
Everyone ultimately ended up with a skein of soba noodles to boil (and nobody lost a finger). Sakai believes soba is easier to make than spaghetti.
“And you don’t have to be so Japanese about it,” she says. “I do soba salad with kale; I’ve served it with Mexican limes.”
Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts anticipates his company’s buckwheat flour will soon be available for commercial sale.