Soba is not inherently sexy, at least not at the home cook level. In the past, I have been accused of describing food in an overly salacious, borderline obscene manner. Who am I to deny the seductive quality of a plump, juicy peach as it explodes under the fervent explorations of eager teeth? But these are noodles. Made of buckwheat flour. Even the sound of it… the hard consonants dropping out of the mouth, clattering about the ear.
But you see, there is a hidden seductive joy in the noodle. Perhaps it was implanted in my brain by a certain old Disney movie, leaving my brain to still believe that somewhere out there I will meet a scruffy fellow who will give me the last meatball and share a long, slow slurp of a last noodle, ending in a kiss. Perhaps it is simply that fact that one uses the word “slurp” a lot with noodles, and that has a certain… quality… Perhaps not.
Food ricochets about the world, each culture having its own iteration of bread, pickles, soup, and of course, noodles. I love noodles. Adore them. Pasta, egg noodle, rice noodle, udon noodle… I will eat them all. As a child my mother would occasionally bust out and make egg noodles from scratch for soup. I can still see the cookie racks, carefully tented into one another, egg noodles drying over them, while my impatient little self pouted that we had to wait so long to eat them (even though in the end I always loved them more than the ones out of a bag.) When it comes to pure ingredients, there is not much to most noodle making processes. Mostly, it is about technique and time. You can definitely mess them up, some more easily than others. When I first started messing with traditional egg pasta dough, there were a few batches that ended in cursing and tears. Enter the soba noodle.
Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour, which is a flour with zero gluten, which means it has zero power to create the traditional stretchy dough one usually associates with a flour product. In Japan there are chefs who can do it totally with just buckwheat flour, but I imagine them to be serious men who have spent years studying with a former soba noodle master, shoulder muscles huge and taut from years of muscling about dense, gluten-free dough. I am but a woman in Chicago, lacking in years of careful culinary tutelage. I have the internet. The internet told me to add some regular flour.
One day I ran across this post at The Kitchn, which is a remarkable site and a minor obsession of mine. It is how to make your own soba noodles. I had never made soba noodles or any noodle outside of European heritage. So of course I had to. I found some buckwheat flour, read the recipe through a few times, and dove in. I frowned at it, because my noodles were significantly… well… greyer than hers. My dough did not look nearly so appealing. It looked vaguely like it was meant to fill in scratches on wood surfaces. But it smelled… it smelled amazing. Straight flour has a clean scent. Whole wheat adds a bit of nuttiness to the nasal palate. But buckwheat… smelled warm. Inviting. Like it would have wrapped little buckwheat arms around me, had it the gluten content to form dough that could stretch that far out. I nibbled a bit. Even in my brief foray into kneading it, there was no trace of the nasty grittiness I normally associate with whole wheat pasta. (And no, I really do not like whole wheat pasta. It is fine in certain applications, and only a few brands don’t taste like carefully crafted sandpaper noodles, but it is no direct substitute for a classic plate of spaghetti. Not in my world. Putting my white pasta soapbox away now…)
Nothing about my noodles looked like the beautiful post I had read. They were thicker, due to my rash method of cutting, which of course I had to improvise rather than being a good person and following their recipe. And of course, because I do not have a prop kitchen or fancy prop dishes for this endeavor, just my tiny kitchen so small I had to move the rolling to my dining room table, a 1950s formica number, they were really not that sexy looking at all when I pointed my camera lens at them. I should point out that I did not use one of the two flours she recommends, I used Arrowhead Mills because it is what I could get my hands on, so it is entirely possible that I am not getting the full effect of these noodles from scratch. And yet, boiled in salted water and rinsed in cold water, just as prescribed, they were still divine. Chewy, nutty, smooth, proving the age old adage that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And it really does. I splashed in some sunflower oil, soy sauce, minced scallions, and red pepper flakes, almost entirely as described in the recipe (they call for dark sesame oil, which I did not have on hand.) Then I added on a bit fat chiffonade of shiso, a lively Japanese herb I found at the farmer’s market that has large, rough leaves and a spicy taste with a little bit of a mint undertone (I looked it up later, and yes, it is a member of the mint family.) It was… unlike anything I normally eat. At once comforting and refreshing.
So as for a recipe? I have none. I absolutely took this whole process from this post. The only thing I did different was to grab a stalk of shiso and chiffonade it. So why am I writing this at all? Because this is not all about recipes. It is about exploring things far out of the comfort zone, of techniques never used, of the science of balance and ratios, and all that whatnot. And you should go try this. Because of all the noodles I have made, these soba were by far the easiest ones I have done yet. So I will have to make them again, experimenting with my technique, finding those other brands of flours, and learning a little bit more patience in cutting them up. Because I’m fairly sure what I ended up with were soba fettucine. Which totally a new food trend. Right?