Can the Average Joe Make Decent Homemade Soba Noodles?

This post is humbly dedicated to my Japanese friend, Takami

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“Love learning for its own sake,
and connect a wide array of ideas
from different fields of study and disciplines.

~ Robert Green

A Culinary Experiment: Making Soba Noodles

My partner and I are not professional cooks, but we do enjoy a fun culinary challenge. We’ve wanted to try making fresh homemade soba noodles since we came across a recipe for them in our pasta-making cookbook. Soba (そば or 蕎麦?) is the Japanese name for buckwheat. It is synonymous with a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour. Soba noodles are served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup (Wikipedia).

We bought regular Canadian buckwheat flour and we were all set to try making fresh soba noodles when we read online about the disastrous outcomes others had experienced using North American processed buckwheat flour to try to make soba noodles. We later learned that Japanese buckwheat is processed very differently than North American buckwheat flour and that using Japanese buckwheat flour makes all the difference between success and failure of homemade noodles.

Then we found a great online post, How to Make Buckwheat Noodles From Scratch, an informative article about making soba noodles at home. It listed two name brands of buckwheat flour that worked well for making homemade noodles. I was thrilled to know which buckwheat flour brands to look for.

We especially love a good culinary project where we have to sleuth out new and interesting ingredients, so this project was extra fun. And we are always looking for an excuse to visit our favourite Asian supermarket—so off we went to hunt down the proper flour for our soba noodle project.

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We love to cook with seasonal ingredients, so when the new green onions appeared at the farmers market this summer, I thought of making a cold soba noodle salad, a perfect meal for the hot, height of summer heat.

DSC_1505_5554-EditAt the Asian SUPERMarket

It turns out that Calgary’s largest Asian supermarket, to our disappointment, has only a small part of one aisle devoted to Japanese ingredients and, sadly, there was no Japanese buckwheat flour to be found, let alone the particular brand we were looking for.

We noticed a young Japanese woman perusing the dried soba noodles. We asked her where we might be able to find Japanese buckwheat flour in the city. She was very gracious and willing to be of assistance but was highly doubtful that we’d find any in Calgary.

Then she looked at us quizzically, “What do you need it for?”, she inquired.

“To make homemade soba noodles”, we replied.

A perplexed look came across her face.

“Why would you want to do that?”, she asked, incredulously.

“Because it’s fun!”, we replied.

But she wasn’t buying that. She told us that she didn’t know anyone who made their own soba noodles. She clearly thought it was odd that we would want to make fresh noodles at home. She simply couldn’t see any reason to go to all that trouble and suggested that we just buy one of the many good dried soba noodles from the market. She pointed out her favourite brand.

We knew she may be right. But we were enjoying our project.

We finally found some finely milled bulk buckwheat flour at our local natural foods store that looked promising. We took heart because the flour looked so much like the photos we’d seen of Japanese buckwheat flour and decided to give this mystery buckwheat flour a try.

Going For It:

Traditionally, fresh soba noodles are prepared entirely by hand, but we opted to use our pasta maker to roll and cut the dough, as we didn’t think we had the skills to do it with any precision.

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DSC_1474_5522-EditThough not traditional, our pasta-making book suggested tossing the freshly cut soba noodles in a bit of flour and separating them to keep the noodles from sticking together. So far, so good. Everything seemed to be coming along nicely (except that we noticed the noodles seemed extremely fragile and were starting to break…).

The results:

Right up until the time we cooked the noodles, we thought for sure we were on the right track to making our own homemade soba noodles. But the result after cooking was a sorry mess of inedible soggy broken noodles with improper texture—they were much too soft and fragile. In fact, they were horrible:

DSC_1486_5534-EditWe laughed. We knew we were taking a risk using the mystery buckwheat flour. The young Japanese woman at the Asian market seemed to foreshadow our outcome: we discarded the entire batch of homemade noodles, put on a new pot of boiling water and cooked some purchased dry soba noodles. They turned out perfectly and I proceeded to make one of my own soba noodle recipes—a delicious summer salad of cold soba noodles tossed with green onions, lightly steamed green beans and grilled chicken on a bed of young salad greens with an Asian dressing. I garnished the salad with some roasted nori strips. This, in my humble opinion, is a perfect summer salad.

While this particular batch of soba noodles was a disaster, our experimental results are inconclusive—we still can’t say for sure whether it will be possible for us to make good soba noodles until we try making it with proper Japanese buckwheat flour. Stay tuned. When we get our hands on some, we’ll try this experiment again.

The Fun is in the Journey

We truly had a lot of fun with this whole project—so much so that we both agreed that we can’t wait to try making homemade soba noodles again. But, what we’d love to do even more is visit an authentic Japanese soba noodle restaurant and taste fresh soba noodles made by a true soba master.

The Soba Master

It’s no big surprise that our soba noodles didn’t turn out on our first try, especially because we had no idea what kind of buckwheat flour we were using. But, even if we had the proper flour, it would be presumptuous indeed to think we could simply bang out excellent soba noodles on our first go—fresh, authentic soba noodle-making is an art form requiring many years of experience to perfect.

 

Making Soba Noodles at Matsugen:

For you foodies out there, here’s another excellent video showing the fascinating process of making soba noodles, as demonstrated by a Japanese soba master at Matsugen in New York City. This video shows the entire process, right from grinding the buckwheat grain to preparing the finished cooked noodles :

 

Image Credits:

All photographs by madlyinlovewithlife; © 2014 madlyinlovewithlife

14 thoughts on “Can the Average Joe Make Decent Homemade Soba Noodles?

  1. Awww….. *blushing* as is likely Ibara-san…

    Incredible! Your combined effort to make zaru soba noodles from scratch! I tip my hat to the two of you even with the results you obtained. Superific.

    I was unable to watch the first video as it said “not available in your country” but enjoyed the second video… Did you see his rolling board?? I want one that big! Well, maybe not as it will just become another uncleaned mess. :-) And his rolling and knife action. Jealous!

    I had watched soba making somewhere in Japan; it was in a small noodle “stand”. A very old lady, squatting on the floor, was cutting the noodle sheet atop an instrument that looked like the stretched strings on an autoharp. She would just press the sheet through the wires. But you can tell it was in use for decades.

    Zaru soba is my youngest son’s favorite noodle! I love it too because its so filling!

    Wonderful post and of course… photography.

    • Thanks, Koji! We had fun with the project and we will definitely try it again in the future. And how interesting to hear your story of watching the lady at the noodle stand in Japan–I would have been mesmerized. I love watching a master at work and it would be interesting to see that old instrument you speak of. There are not that many fresh soba shops in Canada and none that I know of in Calgary, so it will be a real treat when we finally get to taste authentic fresh soba noodles. Thanks again for your very interesting comment!

      ~ Jeannie :))

    • Hello Kanemoto-san,
      Yes, I am blushing too ;) I think it’s so cool that Jeannie and her partner went on this adventure. I’ll admit, I’m too afraid to even think about it ;)
      Being a Shikoku Girl, I grew up on Udon, so I started eating Soba only when I moved to Tokyo. Hubby and I like Zaru soba too :)

  2. Dear Jeannie,
    Wow! What an adventure! I agree with Koji, my hat’s off to you and your partner on your effort to make authentic Soba noodles. Like most people, I am too intimidated to even attempt it and I must say, I loved reading every part of your journey :)) I agree, it’s so much fun to try new things and explore new territory. I really hope you’ll continue to do it ;)) I’m also honoured you dedicated a post to me (!) and I’ll be sure to watch the Anthony Bourdain documentary with my husband later today. (I used to love watching some of his shows on the Food Channel)

    As always, your photos are wonderful, you even make the ‘soggy’ noodles seem tasty. If only I could do that to my cooking……..

    Thank you again, and wish you and your partner (and the Danbo Bros) a lovely Sunday.

    • Thank you, Takami! We certainly do enjoy a good culinary adventure and this one was very fun. We loved every step of it and I know we will try making them again one day. We both love soba noodles and udon noodles (perhaps we will try making some fresh udon noodles next!). We enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain’s shows every now and again–his irreverence makes us both laugh! Wishing you and your husband a happy week ahead! :)))

    • Thanks so much, Lis! Soba noodles are so versatile and tasty, aren’t they? And they’re so easy to make (if you just get the dry ones, which we usually keep on hand). I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to successfully make fresh ones, but if and when we get our hands on some proper Japanese buckwheat flour, we’ll give it another whirl! :)) ~ Jeannie

  3. I love soba noodles, but it sure didn’t occur to me to try to make them myself. You were tremendously ambitious. It must have been disappointing to have the first result, but what fun in the planning and gathering ingredients and doing your best! Good for you! I loved your encounter with the woman in the store…she probably went home to tell her family all about the crazy woman she’d met that day. LOL!

    • Hi Debra! We really did have a lot of fun with this project. We love making our own Italian pasta, and except for the kind of flour used, this isn’t much different. And I’m still convinced that when we get our hands on the right buckwheat flour, we could make some decent fresh soba noodles–I don’t expect it would ever be as good as a soba master’s noodles, but tasty enough. And, ha..ha… I’m certain that the young woman at the supermarket did go home to tell her mother all about us! Ha..ha! We had a good laugh thinking about it too! Have a great day! :))

  4. Oh Jeannie…this is right up my alley. I am a big fan of soba and thought about making it years ago, but backed out when I read how “special” it is ;-) I always have a package or two in the pantry. I eat soba anytime, even for breakfast with veggies and hard boiled eggs. Thank you for the attempt…and the stunning photos. I look forward to watching the two videos over a bowl soba real soon!!

    • Thank you very much, Maria! It’s always such a delight to hear from you. I love your idea of having soba noodles for breakfast with a hard-boiled egg. I’m definitely going to try it! And you are right–fresh soba is very special and requires skill and mastery to do it right. But we really had so much fun trying and we will go for it again if we ever come across the right kind of buckwheat flour. Thanks for stopping by and thanks again for your kind comments. :))

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