Steps to Making Soba
Delicate, nuanced buckwheat noodles—soba—have been an iconic dish in Japan for at least four hundred years. Watching Chef Kotani conjure these fresh noodles from just buckwheat flour and water, and serving them in a bespoke savory broth, is a masterclass in everything amazing about Japanese cuisine: Focus. Intent. Precision. Specificity. Simplicity. And a helping of the spirits, too, as you’ll see.
Mixing the soba dough
“I don’t control the buckwheat, the buckwheat controls me,” announces the chef.
Eyes shut, relying only on his fingers (“my sensors”), training and two decades of soba-making experience, Chef Kotani begins to mix the soba dough.
The soba he’s creating is called towari—100% stone-ground buckwheat flour. Ingredients are 1,000 grams buckwheat flour and 450 grams natural spring water (the chef prefers Volvic or Fuji). Since buckwheat contains no gluten proteins, the dough has zero elasticity. So skill is everything in this process. Chef Kotani slowly melds the ingredients, mixing, mixing, touching, feeling for absorption. Chef Kotani explains:
(By the way, the large bowl Chef Kotani uses to form his soba dough, isn’t any old vessel, as you’ve guessed, of course. Called a kibachi, it’s carved from lightweight and strong Japanese oak (kashi) and coated in Japanese lacquer (urushi). Besides being beautiful, the traditional lacquer is naturally antibacterial, easy to clean and protects against parasites burrowing into the wood.)
How does Chef Kotani know when the dough is ready?
“When the soba is ready to move to the next process, it tells me,” says Chef Kotani.“Once the dough’s ready I open my eyes—it’s like magic.”
Rolling out the dough
Once the dough forms, Chef Kotani immediately begins to knead it. A critical fact he emphasizes throughout the process: “If the dough breaks, you cannot repair it.” Without gluten, the dough is essentially forming in spite of itself. Again, skill is everything here.
Chef Kotani turns the dough with sensitive yet forceful actions. “This is a very delicate process, you can’t touch too hard.” The key is pushing out all the air from the dough. “If there are air bubbles in the dough,” he explains, “it will break when you roll it out.” He shapes the dough into a mound that resembles a chrysanthemum flower.
Time to roll out the dough. Remember, if the dough breaks, cracks, separates—it’s shot. No do-overs. With this in mind, check out the chef’s hand motion as he works with three pins to roll out the dough, first creating a circle, then transforming it into a rectangular sheet. And all the while, he’s lightly dusting the dough with hozenko, finely milled buckwheat with the consistency of corn starch, critical for dying out damp spots:
Cutting the noodles
Final step. After folding the soba sheet into sixteen layers, Chef Kotani gently lays a wooden guide atop the dough and employs a sobakiri—a specialized soba knife—to cut rectangular-shaped noodles. The blade’s weight and width help it effortlessly glide through the dough to create the uniform strips. Let’s watch Chef Kotani in action:
Assembling soba in broth
To prepare soba in hot broth, Chef Kotani uses a ratio of 10:1 dashi to kaeshi (flavor base for soba). For a single serving he combines 350 grams dashi with 35 grams kaeshi. Here’s his method:
Pour the kaeshi into a bowl and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. While the water is heating, add the dashi to a yukihara nabe, or saucepan, and place over medium heat. As soon as the dashi comes to a boil and you see bubbles form in the center of the liquid, turn off the heat.
When the water is boiling vigorously, add 120 grams of soba noodles and cover the pot. Cook for about one minute. About 15 seconds before the noodles are ready, pour the dashi into the bowl, but don’t mix, the liquids will combine on their own. As soon as the noodles are ready, gather them gently with kitchen chopsticks and add to the bowl.
(Chef Kotani doesn’t rinse his noodles, which he says would also rinse away nutrients found in 100% buckwheat soba).
Serve immediately, with condiments of your choice. Chef Kotani suggests dry wakame seaweed, wasabi, shichimi togarashi, yuzu kosho or sesame seeds.
Check out these photos of Chef Kotani assembling and plating the dish: