Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Art of Soba 手打ちそば

Last Monday Chizuko and I were invited by a friend, S-san, to try making buckwheat noodles (soba そば, in Japanese) at her home. Soba making is one of several hands-on activities that a group in Otaki is beginning to develop for tourists. So, this time was a kind of trial run, I suppose.

Although soba is eaten throughout Japan, it is particularly popular in Nagano. In Chizuko's hometown of Kyoto, the noodle of choice is udon, which is a white noodle made with regular flour. So, Chizuko isn't a huge fan of soba, and I can't say that I (even though I previously lived in Nagano for two years) ever have been either. Also, since we moved to Otaki, we hadn't really been impressed with any of the soba we tried. Anyway, the soba we were going to make had a long way to go to get any high marks with the two of us (not that we know squat about giving marks to soba).

We arrived at S-san's house at four in the afternoon, as we had previously arranged. As soon as we had parked our car we received a call from S-san, letting us know that she was waiting our arrival; S-san's attention to the needs of others continues to amaze me.

S-san invited us in for a bit of cold tea and also offered us corn that she had picked that day (Otaki corn is some of the best I’ve ever eaten . . . but I’ll have to talk about it in another entry). In the lingering heat of the day, the tea slipped easily down my throat, while beads of sweat rolled down the bottle and onto my hand. A man appeared in the entryway dressed in white and looking very much like a cook. Chizuko and I introduced ourselves. The man (I-san) works for Nagano prefecture as the deputy director of the agricultural department. He is originally from Ida, an area located on the other side of the Kiso Mountains to the east of Otaki. I-san is learning to make soba and has passed the first two or three levels of a five level system for rating skill in soba-making. I had no idea such a system existed and was amazed to learn that such skill was needed in order to make soba.

I finished the last of my tea and we all moved to a small addition with a separate entrance that lies slightly away from the rest of S-san’s house. A small table stood in the middle of a room on the second floor. Bags of flour—soba and regular—lined one wall, with a line of windows that looked out onto green summer hills occupying the opposite side.

I-san began to explain the process for making soba noodles. The ingredients are simple: soba flour, regular flour, and water. The regular flour, he specified, is used as a binding agent, due to the coarseness of soba flour; only the most skilled people, he noted, can make noodles using 100% soba flour. That day we did a five part mixture: four parts soba flour and one part regular. To this we added about 250 ml of water. This is where the art really begins. Too much water and the dough will be too soft to do anything will; too little and it will break apart. In deciding the amount of water to add, both S-san and I-san seemed to rely on intuition more than any sort of quantitative method.

In the past, S-san used to make a lot of soba—not professionally, but for guests who would come to the village. She said that making noodles for 100 was not uncommon. S-san was talking as her hands moved swiftly across the lacquered surface of a mixing bowl, whipping together flour and water, while dashing any large clods in order to keep the mixture even throughout. S-san’s pace is always slow, yet steady, as if she knows that all tasks are worth taking the time to do right; besides, what’s the rush? At the same time, S-san doesn’t seek perfection in her technique; small flaws are overlooked for the beauty or utility of the overall project.

Gathering the coarse dough together, S-san formed a ball about the size of an infant’s head and began to knead it with firm squeezes. S-san is an elderly woman, in her eighties, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She’s not small, though not at all tall by any stretch of the imagination, but her build is wide and strong—a body shaped by a life spent working vegetable fields and rice paddies in the high mountains. Chizuko asks if S-san has any siblings. We discover that there were four children in the family, and that three remain in the village. I try to imagine S-san as a young girl, but can’t conjure a face in my head; I’m left wondering about the life here in the mountains that produced such a warm and kind woman.

After perhaps 15 minutes of kneading the dough is ready once again to be transformed, this time into a thin sheet from which we will cut our noodles. S-san lifts a rolling pin to the table, it’s long (about half a meter) and narrow (a bit fatter than the butt end of a pool cue). With her hand she mashes down the dough, which had been left in a conical shape on the table, and forms a round disk with the circumference of a frisbee. Next, she begins to work with the rolling pin. I’m amazed by the technique. The pin is held lightly, with the hands allowed to slide from side to side. A single role starts with the hands placed wide and ends with them meeting at the center, each having travelled half the distance of the pin. The motion allows one to target specific sections of the dough that need to be flattened. The soba dough is a light brown color and, unexpectedly, has the consistency of potter’s clay—smooth and stiff. It responds willingly to the motions of the rolling pin and gives in to the shape we are requesting of it.

With swift and certain strokes, S-san makes quick work of the task and is soon left with a round piece of dough, about a centimeter thick and as round as a large pizza. Beads of sweat have formed on S-san’s brow and we all laugh as I-san tells her to wipe her face before she starts dripping on the soba. She asks I-san to take over. I watch intrigued as I-san uses two rolling pins to continue stretching the soba and to begin reforming the circle into a square. At times he wraps the dough onto the two pins so that it looks like a Chinese scroll. I’m not sure exactly how he accomplishes it, but before long the dough has indeed taken on the shape of a square and is now about half a centimeter thick. Now that he has the thickness right I-san folds the dough on top of itself, putting soba flour in between each layer.

Next, using a specialized knife and a small board that is placed on top of the dough, I-san begins cutting the soba. The noodles he produces are thin and beautiful. The scent of soba flour is in the air and it’s wonderful. I-san scoops up small bundles of the fresh noodles and shakes them free of one another before laying them gently into a plastic bin.

Chizuko and I take our turns attempting the various steps and receive ample amounts of undeserved compliments from S-san and I-san; my rolling technique gets particular praise, as does Chizuko’s skill at wrapping the dough onto the pin to further stretch it. S-san slips out to go to the store for supplies and before long returns with ice cream cones for everyone (how did she know just how perfect an ice cream would be at that moment?).

Soon we’re done rolling the second batch of dough and so Chizuko and I take turns trying our hand at cutting slender noodles. We cheat a bit by using a device that S-san has from when she used to make a lot of soba. It’s a knife that sits on a track so that each time you lift the blade it shifts slightly to the left, enough so that the next slice will create a near perfect set of noodles. Lift the blade higher and you get a thicker noodle—a simple device, well suited to the task it was designed for.

We take a moment to clean up and then move into the main part of S-san’s house to begin preparations for dinner. It’s time to reap the benefits of our humble labors. The artistry of soba-making extends to the kitchen as I-san and S-san discuss the subtleties of boiling the noodles—too long the go soft, not long enough they will be stiff. Broth for dipping the noodles is also prepared. Green onions are sliced thin; these will be placed in the sauce alongside some wasabi.

As the motions of preparations whirl around me I continue to scribble notes in my pocketbook, looking up once in a while to take in the landscape of S-san’s house. The wooden roof and walls of the living room are darkened from soot accumulated from years of using a wood fire stove that sits in the middle of the room. On a high self on the far side of the room sits a Shinto alter called a kamidana 神棚, as well as a couple of daruma, red rounded statues depicting the bodhisattva, Bodhidharma (“daruma” is a Japanese phonetization of the word dharma), who is said to have brought Buddhism from India to China; in the Japan the statues are meant to bring good fortune and help fulfill specific wishes.

Almost without me noticing a meal has taken shape on the small table before me. A pile of cold soba noodles sits on small wooden slates atop a plate, accompanied by a small dish of broth. A bowl of salad made from fresh zucchini and cucumber from S-san’s garden, and topped with small fish called jako 雑魚, as well as a locally made red beet vinaigrette. A potato salad that Chizuko had made also sat on the table. S-san, who doesn’t drink at all, brought out ice cold beers (she can read my mind, truly) and a bottle of shochu (Korean liquor).

I-san asked if there was going to be a spot for him to spend the night. S-san said of course. Beers were opened. With a joyful “kanpai!!” (cheers) we dug into the feast. In Japan soba is slurped, and slurped with gusto. It was hot and we were all sweaty and a bit tired, but the noodles were cold, as was the beer, so we all slurped, reveling in the meal we had just crafted ourselves. I looked up at S-san who was beginning to tell a story about life in Otaki. She smiled and let out a laugh—hers is a laugh that I’ve come to love, and will never forget.

The sun was setting as we continued our meal; a cool mountain breeze began to blow through the house.

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