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Features 2 minutes 14 May 2017

The Art of Soba-Making

We take a look at why handmade soba tastes better.

technique Japan video

The magic of a good plate of soba noodles starts from the buckwheat. For soba master Osamu Tagata, who has been making soba for over 20 years, this means hunting down and preserving a a rare native strain of buckwheat known as oonozairai. This is produced via an ancient Japanese form of swidden agriculture known as yakihata (burned field), where forestland in mountaineous regions is cleared to create land and the wood ash is used as natural fertiliser. In a bid to revive this particular strain of buckwheat, which was on the verge of extinction, Tagata also established the Shizuoka Zairai (Shizuoka Native) Buckwheat Branding Promotion Council in 2011 with the goal of promoting awareness and keeping its production technique alive among the agricultural industry.

In fact, Tagata wasn’t always a soba artisan. He started out as a Japanese salary man with a keen interest in soba-making, taking it on as a hobby at age 27. At 33, Tagata left his sales job to work at a restaurant in Tokyo for two years to pick up the art of making soba. 

"Soba is very simple. There is no artificiality to it, and the process of making it is so natural. That's what I love about soba," says Tagata. He now runs his restaurant Teuchi Soba Tagata in Shizuoka, Japan, where he continues the art of making soba by hand.

Not all soba is made the same though. In autumn, for instance, the buckwheat harvest is better, which produces a more aromatic noodle; buckwheat from the summer harvest is turned into noodles better paired with a dipping sauce.
“Even the same species of buckwheat will produce noodles that taste different when made in different seasons,” shares Tagata, who uses 30 to 40 native species of buckwheat at his restaurant. When a season brings about a less-than-ideal harvest, the grains are aged to bring out its flavour.
Touch of the hand

While machines have eased the time of soba-making, the essence of good soba lies in making it by hand. The buckwheat grains, for instance, should be stone-milled by hand, as the flour has to be very fresh to get a good aromatic noodle.

The next step is to place the flour in a large basin, where pure spring water is added slowly. Strong forceful motions are applied to knead and work the doughy pellets into a dome.

"When you touch the soba flour, you can feel it speak to you," says Tagata.

Roll and push

It is why the soba master painstakingly rolls out the dough by hand each day, a process he refuses to surrender to machines. At his restaurant, the dough is rolled out using noshibo (rolling pin), then stretched and slapped on the board repeatedly until its surface gleams. This is because machine-rolled soba clumps up the dough and cause easy breakage.
Flour is generously sprinkled over the stretched dough to prevent it sticking together, before it is folded twice to create layers that make it easy to cut the noodles into precise strips. The noodles are then bundled up and left in a metal box to be used later.
Slurp it up

A quick 7-second dip in unsalted boiling water, and the noodles are served as is with a pinch of natural salt and a bowl of dipping sauce on the side. Though many will find it rude to see someone slurping up a bowl of noodles, Tagata shares that this is common in Japan. Aerating the noodles in your mouth (when you slurp the soba) actually helps achieve the flavours and aroma of the soba when you chew it.

"Slurping your noodles is actually a sign of appreciation," he says.
Watch Japanese soba master Osamu Tagata demonstrates the art of making soba here

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