Soba Men

Soba Men
Masters in the making

Relying on subtle calculations and a practiced hand, truly fine handmade soba is most often segregated to the realm of masters running limited seating restaurants. Unlike a hearty stew or roast, it is not the everyman’s dish. Requiring an expensive set of specific tools alongside great physical exertion and time, it is not a dish to whip up at home.

And yet there is an unlikely tradition of retired men, men with long histories in business and corporate or academic careers, men with perhaps null experience in the kitchen, turning their attention to making soba in their later years. Satisfying the need for social, physical, and intellectual engagement when jobs no longer fill their days, soba clubs have become a popular gathering place.

To hear them talk with animated enthusiasm about such a niche culinary endeavor is a delight. Meet these men, men who would dedicate their golden years to coaxing buckwheat flour and water into one of the most refined and healthiest noodles in the world. Meet the soba men.

It’s fun! I’ve been making soba for 10 years.

Soba has a special place within Japanese food. There are different kinds of soba. This is Edo-soba. Edo-soba is thin and long. What we are making today is called ni-ha (two-eight) soba. It is two parts wheat flour and eight parts buckwheat flour.

Soba contains only two ingredients, flour and water. The fragrance is best at the moment when you add the water to the flour and start mixing.

It’s difficult to reproduce the same condition. It’s ALWAYS different. There is a gap between my ideal soba and the reality. That’s the never-ending challenge. That’s why I keep coming back.

Atmospheric conditions differ, for example temperature and humidity. Therefore there is a real seasonal difference. And the inherent moisture in the flour differs. These subtle differences have an enormous effect. For example if you are inside or outside. Today we are outside. There is no wind, but when there is wind, the dough dries out easily.

In ideal conditions soba stays fresh for about two hours. It’s best to eat it within that window. When it’s fresh and contains the right moisture content you only need to boil it about a minute, 50 seconds actually. The amount of water, the strength of the flame, one by one these factors have an impact. With soba, you never get bored

Freshly ground flour, freshly cut and freshly boiled noodles. These are the three keys to good soba. 

 

 

The fragrance is
best at themoment when you add the water to the flour
and start mixing. 

The new buckwheat flour available right now is from Hokkaido. The buckwheat around here is still flowering. It will be ready to harvest around the middle of November. Buckwheat is very weak against rain and wind. You can’t plant it until the rainy season has ended. There is no rainy season in Hokkaido so you can plant it earlier and thus harvest it earlier. New buckwheat flour is delicious. The best buckwheat probably comes from Nagano, a place with mountains. Hokkaido buckwheat is also delicious.

I’ve been making soba for seven years.

Deciding on the firmness is the hardest part. If it’s too hard, or too soft, it’s very hard to work with. Finding that perfect consistency is tough.  On a rainy humid day, even if you use less water it can become too soft. On a hot dry day, even if you add extra water it doesn’t always turn out right.

Buckwheat flour is very sensitive to humidity. You can’t simply follow the formula. Even if you use the same proportion of water each time, it will turn out differently on different days. So each time you make it you have to judge when to stop adding water – judge the conditions, assess the flour and decide on the right ratio of water. That’s the hardest part, but that’s what makes it really interesting. You do your best and one time it goes poorly and another time it's great. If it were the same every time, it would cease to be interesting.

Everyone here is experienced. There are a few people who have opened restaurants. But honestly it’s better to make soba as a hobby. If you open a restaurant you just get busy.

I was an office worker for MoonStar, a large shoe company. There are all kinds of people here. We’re all retired. That guy there, he worked for Mitsubishi and was stationed in America for a while. That one, he was a banker. And he worked for Nissan. The one mixing there, he was a college professor.

You see how it becomes square? We roll the dough out square and then fold it. So, when you cut it, the noodles are all the same length.

I don’t make much soba at home. The flour makes such a mess. In the season of new buckwheat flour or for New Year's eve, I‘ll make soba for my friends or neighbors. But overall I don’t like making it at home. To be honest, they are a little sick of it at home. I used to practice at home. But my kids are all grown and gone. It’s just my wife and me. When you make soba, you make 1 kilo of dough. What do we do with 1 kilo of soba for 2 people? Soba again!? my wife says…

You see, you have to eat it within a day. It doesn’t keep, even in the refrigerator. It’s no good on the second day. Freezing doesn’t work either. It breaks. Sometimes I have to give it away. You could make half a kilo, but it’s not that interesting. It doesn’t get that big when you roll it out. 1 kilo of dough is a good amount to work with. When you are first learning, you can work with 500 grams. But once you get proficient 500 grams feels small, it just isn’t that interesting. 

Most people eventually buy their own knife. This one is from Sakai. In the olden days, Sakai was the capital of samurai sword making. There are a lot of sword makers now making soba knives. 

Most people think that the mixing with water is the hard part. It seems simple, but the pros will tell you that the simplest things are the hardest. But for me, cutting is the hardest, making each cut it in the same balanced proportion. It's easier said than done. Most people think that’s the easiest part. But not for me!

With other noodles, like udon, you don’t have to cut it to such a subtle size. A little big, a little small, it doesn’t matter. Udon is udon, not matter what. But as far as soba is concerned, they say that if it isn’t cut properly, it isn’t soba! On that point, it’s much more challenging than udon.

Even if you aren’t much of a cook in your daily life, you can make soba. Maybe this is the appeal for men. But these days there are more and more women getting involved too. Anyone can join this club, even total beginners. Yes, it's fine, welcome in fact. Within the club the more accomplished people teach the newcomers.

It’s been, let’s see, I started at age 63 and now I am I’m 76, so about 13 years. When you hit retirement age you stop working. The majority of the club members are retired.  All different kinds of people gather here. You connect with people from all different walks of life. We make soba together. We talk. We come to this festival once a year. But usually we go to facilities for people with disabilities or to nursing homes. We go to many places and volunteer. We make soba and then we eat together. It's great fun.

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