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Features 2 minutes 03 May 2017

Why Handmade Soba Always Tastes Better

When it comes to making this deceptively simple dish, every ingredient and technique needs to be on point. Soba master Osamu Tagata tells us more.

Japanese food technique soba

The rhythmic thuds of knife against board form a soothing lullaby as the rain comes down in sheets outside. In the corner of a room, Japanese chef Osamu Tagata, 48, is using a soba kiri (specialist soba noodle knife) to slice his dough into 2.1mm-thick bundles of noodles. The chef was in town last week for a collaboration at Hashida Sushi Singapore for the sushi restaurant's fourth anniversary.
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.

It’s in the buckwheat

The magic of a good plate of soba noodles starts from the buckwheat. At his restaurant Teuchi Soba Tagata in Shizuoka, Japan, Tagata makes soba flour from 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.

He shares that not all soba is made the same – 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.
Soba master.jpg
“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, Tagata also ages the grain to bring out its flavour.
The grains are vacuum-packed, then placed in a 0°C environment and aged with their skin on for as long as three years.

Touch of the hand

While machines have taken over many soba-making outfits, Tagata still believes, and keeps to, the art of making soba by hand. The buckwheat grains, for instance, are stone-milled by hand, and the flour kept at a constant 25°C so it will not spoil. This, Tagata shares, is an important process that makes the difference between fresh and dried soba noodles. “Aroma is very important when you eat soba, and the flour has to be very fresh to get a good aroma,” says Tagata.

The next step is to place the flour in a large basin, where pure spring water is added slowly and worked in with his hands. Strong forceful motions are applied to knead and work the doughy pellets into a dome, Tagata's practised hands quick to tell when the texture feels just right.

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

This is also why Tagata painstakingly rolls out the dough by hand each day, a process he refuses to surrender to machines. Here, the dough is rolled out using noshibo (rolling pin), then stretched and slapped on the board repeatedly until its surface gleams. “A machine only presses down on the soba dough. It doesn’t push the dough like we do with our hands,” says Tagata. Machine-rolled soba also tends to clump up the dough and cause easy breakage. "The pushing and stretching process when you roll noodles by hand gives you a lighter (airier) noodle," he says.
The soba dough is cut into precise strips of noodles.
The soba dough is cut into precise strips of noodles.

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. This is when Tagata takes out his soba kiri (a specialist soba noodle knife) and begins the rhythmic pace of slicing the dough into precise 2.1mm-strips. The noodles are then bundled up and left in a metal box until service.
Step by step: Guide to making soba
Savouring soba

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. "Slurping your noodles is actually a sign of appreciation," he says. There's also a technical aspect to this. 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.

It's a dish that looks so simple, yet to make a good bowl of soba takes time. At Tagata's restaurant, only 70 bowls are turned out each day, as chef shares he cannot produce more.

"To understand soba, you must really love it. To me, making soba is a way of expressing myself."

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