Soba - Delicious Simplicity
By Marri Lynn
North Americans are becoming increasingly conscious of the food they eat, and many popular diets prescribe the abolition of carbs and glutinous products, the old staple, Italian pastas, are being relegated to the table of special occasions. Can a noodle satisfy the pasta craving without treading on a dietary taboo? An answer for the al dente aficionado could very well be found across the Pacific Ocean in the land which has already made us aware of the benefits of natto, seaweeds, and azuki beans.
The noodle-loving nation has had the answer to a healthful and versatile noodle since the early ninth century. Unlike many "good for you" foods from Japan, the soba noodle possesses as much flavour and familiarity potential as better-known favourites like tempura and yakiniku. And far from simply lacking in offensive ingredients, the noodle comes with a surprising amount of nourishment packed into every slender strand.
Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat, the plant from which the wholesome and delicious noodle is made. The buckwheat plant is a hardy plant related to sorrel and rhubarb which grows well in cool climates, making it popular especially in the north of Japan. The flour, and accordingly, the noodles, are rich in minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. They also contain vitamin B1 as well as flavonoids, in particular (called rutin), which is known best for benefiting the cardiovascular system.
While the soba noodle now brings Nippon to mind, buckwheat is cultivated far and wide, and has been for centuries. Koreans use the starch to make memilmuk, a brown jelly usually eaten as a side dish mixed with kimchi and ground sesame. The buckwheat's grain is used to make porridges and groats as well as buckwheat pancakes popular in eastern Europe. Japan came by soba in the same manner that it absorbed Buddhism, through travellers from China. Some suggest that the noodle came not merely coincidentally with Buddhism, but with the religion itself, imported by ascetic monks who appreciated its unassuming appearance and healthiness and didn't want to do without it.
Although called a 'whole grain', buckwheat is actually a fruit seed which contains no gluten, making it perfect for gluten-conscious diners. The buckwheat's flour contains more protein than regular wheat flour pastas, so the elegantly simple staple holds more substance than simply enjoyable flavor. Buckwheat's boons aren't restricted its flour; when in bloom, buckwheat's tufts of delicate white-pink flowers are irresistible to bees, and the resulting buckwheat honey is favoured for its dark colour and malty flavor as well as its high concentration of antioxidants when compared to other honeys.
No additives or preservatives complicate the makeup of the noodle itself. Only a small amount of wheat flour must be added into the dough because a batch made with pure buckwheat flour would quickly crumble and fall apart. Noodles made from one hundred percent sobako would also be rather dense and not very enjoyable to eat. The price of sobako also makes a purely buckwheat noodle cost-prohibitive. This balance of sobako to regular flour is crucial in determining a noodle's quality. Soba made with eighty percent buckwheat flour is termed hachiwari, and is regarded as the most desirable for its higher nutrient content, the truly earthy buckwheat flavor, and the skill involved in kneading dough with the high percentage of sobako. Commercial soba noodles usually have a higher ratio of wheat flour mixed with the sobako to make them more affordable, or for a flavourful variant, sometimes green tea is mixed with the dough to make cha-soba while yomogi-soba comes from mixing dried mugwort with the sobako before the noodles are made.
Soba can be enjoyed both as a quick, cheap snack, or as the highlight of a meal experience in a sobaya which specialises in a variety of soba dishes. These speciality restaurants pride themselves on making their soba fresh, in-house. For a sobaya to be taken seriously, using pre-made noodles simply won't do. While dried soba is available in shops throughout Japan, able to be enjoyed conveniently at home, some driven men still devote their lives to perfecting the art of making soba noodles by hand. They learn the deceptively simple process of making the fresh noodles out of flour and water, and develop the best dishes to highlight the flavor of the soba with ingredients chosen for their freshness and availability by season and location. These soba artisans aspire to be regarded as soba 'masters', and seek the perfection of the simple noodle with a dedication that stems from soba's long, rich history.