Ironically the night a friend threw a toga party, it snowed. My friends and I gleefully watched as it surreptitiously covered our cars in a foot of the white, fluffy stuff while we partied in our badly-tied bed sheets. At 1am I traipsed back to my apartment in my bed sheet and welly boots and had forgotten about the next morning’s event; soba making in Ikeda-cho. Soba is a popular type of Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour and is famous in this area. Ikeda-cho is in the middle of nowhere. Snuggled in my bed I secretly hoped that the event would be postponed so I could sleep off the effects of the party. But, it wasn’t. So we drove into the snowy wilderness to make soba.
The small town of Ikeda is nestled in a low mountain range, east of Echizen and usually takes about an hour drive to get there from Fukui city, but on this day it took two. I’d been there before but it looked completely unrecognisable with a blanket of heavy snow. We drove past many elderly men and women who were shovelling buckets of snow from their driveways and gardens. Their wise, wrinkly faces looked liked they’d seen a lot worst weather than this. They seemed amused to see a convoy of wide-eyed foreigners driving through their little town.
This was an ALT event planned by someone whose JTE was also a Soba Master. This man was kind enough to show us the way to the soba-making centre, as the roads were indistinguishable from the rice fields! He had only been learning how to make soba for two years but he looked like he’d been doing it for much longer.
The ten of us who had signed up to the workshop were mostly first-years in Japan and hadn’t seen this amount of snow before nor had driven in it. Unlike in England where the snow settles for a few days and is thought of as a novelty, in Fukui the snow settles for two or three months! Here the novelty of the snow is lost on most people except for young children and ALTs who are still excited by the prospect of snowball fights, snowmen making and sledging!
When we finally arrived at the soba-making centre, we got to work straight away. The three Soba Masters who had part-time jobs or were volunteer staff at the centre, helped us all turn flour and water into tasty noodles. Here is the general process but not an exact recipe!
Step 1. Take a beautiful old bowl, a sieve and about a kilogram of buckwheat flour (3 parts buckwheat, 1 part plain flour),
Step 2. Pour in about 300ml of water and mix it in with your fingers. Add about 150ml more water and continue to mix until it has a breadcrumb-like texture. Step 3. Draw the mixture into a ball and knead it, like you would clay. (My partner Laura had expert skills in this part.) Once thoroughly kneaded turn the ends of the dough inwards so it looks something like a flower.
Step 4. Take a metre long rolling pin and start thinning your dough out. Place your hands in the middle of the rolling pin and gently push them outwards as you roll over the rough. Keep turning the dough until you get a circle shape.
Step 5. Then for the tricky bit, wrap the dough around the rolling pin and roll it in one direction three times. Unwrap and see your dough is turning square shaped! Repeat until your dough is as square shaped as it can be.
Step 7. Then rest a cutting board on top of the folded layers and find a big knife! Tilt the knife slightly to push the board away and make a sharp precision with the knife. Repeat until you’re left with a board full of noodles!
Eat and enjoy! This dish is called oroshi soba and very popular in Japan. The soba are boiled for two minutes and then blanched in cold water. It is served with a thin dashi-stock and toped with daikon (grated radish), fish flakes and spring onion.
So did I like it? The subtly sweet taste of the stock, the sharp taste of the daikon and the strange texture of the fish flakes is a strange concoction. Next time, I’d pass on the daikon but everything else was delicious. It’s not my favourite dish but is definitely the most fun to make!
Here a few photos from the back seat of Tom’s car on our journey home.
Thanks to Tom and Crystal for organising this super event and for getting us there and back safely!