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A Soba Noodles Class in Tokyo

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My private lesson at the Soba Academy in Tokyo to make these Japanese buckwheat noodles from scratch.

There is little doubt in my mind that making soba noodles by hand like Japanese chefs is one of the most spectacular cooking skills one can hope to learn in Japan. Not that I am so fond of these buckwheat noodles myself, I guess one needs to eat them a couple dozen times to start enjoying their delicate taste and brittle texture. But working with only 20% wheat content is like a culinary highwire act - there is almost no gluten to save you if you move the dough the wrong way. We are really dealing with the aristocracy of the noodles here.

Another obvious perk is to work with the beautiful meter-long wooden rolling pin and to be allowed to touch the giant, guillotine-like soba knife.

The technique used by Japanese chefs can be used, with some modifications, to make regular wheat-and-eggs pasta entirely by hand. As you see, it is much superior than the traditional Italian way.

We arranged for a private class at the Tsukiji Soba Academy, a cookery school not far from Tokyo's wholesale fish market which trains Japanese soba chefs. The cursus lasts about 30 days and after that alumni go open their own soba-noodles restaurants. Only about 20% of soba restaurants make their noodles entirely by hand like you will see here. Even I could taste the difference with machine made or even, God forbids, bought soba noodles.


The owner is Akila Inouye, a Japanese chef who glows with love of cooking and food. A very nice man, in 3 hours he demonstrated how to make soba by hand and had us make a complete batch each. Mr Inouye's English was terrific and very precise with some deliberate neologisms such as 'You are very good sobatician'.

 

Mixing
The traditional Tokyo-style soba noodles have a ratio of 8 parts buckwheat to 2 parts wheat flour, called Nihachi Soba (2-to-8 soba).

You start with the flours in two bowls and three bowls of water for a total of 50% of the flour's weight.

 

 

We asked chef Inouye what he thought of the beautiful traditional wooden mixing bowl, which I saw in a soba chef shop for €300 a piece. He just made a sign with his head and one of his two helpers literally jumped in the back to bring him a wooden bowl. He really commands much respect with his pupils - very impressive! He thinks stainless steel bowls are just as good and much less costly.

 

Both flours are sifted in the mixing bowl. Then you pass your hands on the surface to break it and make it more welcoming to the water. You wouldn't want a pool forming in there.

 

You add the water gradually until the right consistence is achieved. Unlike what, buckwheat is very fond of water and drinks it readily.

The flour is worked into a ball using highly codified, super efficient gestures. Then the ball's creases are all brought on the top and it is flattened until the entire surface is smooth.

This is much smarter and efficient than the way pasta is done in Italy.

 

Flattening

The dough is gradually flattened with the long rolling pin, rotating it by 30° each time for two complete circles.

 

The dough needs to be exactly 5mm thick, which the chef checks with a special plastic gauge (you bet I bought him a set!).

 

This part is where the Japanese beat the Italian when it comes to pasta technique (the Italians catch back later with the sauces). Using a precise technique, the chef transforms a wide circle into a clean rectangle in a series of smooth gestures condoned by tradition.

 

Now the circle looks like an oval. It is turned 90° and again rolled around a longer rolling pin, then extended with pressure applied with both hands in the center to stretch the dough diagonally.

Using the short rolling pin, the dough undergoes further flattening until it is nicely rectangular in shape. I cannot stress enough how superior a rectangular shape is when making most pasta. You reduce your waste by at least 20%.

 

Chef Inuye continues to work his dough until it is 1.5mm thick (check the yellow gauge on the left). The dough is so large now that he needs to roll half of it around one of the two long sticks while he works on the other half.

 

Cutting

A very fine special buckwheat processing flour called uchiko is spread over the dough rectangle, which is then folded 4 times over itself. The uchiko prevents any sticking.

 

The folded dough is gently pressed under a light board and ready for cutting.

 

The chef takes out his giant, carbon-steel soba knife and starts cutting the noodles.

 

The noodles must be 1.6mm wide. 'How do you achieve such regularity?' I asked. 'Easy. Just place your knife at a 1.5° angle and it will push back the guiding board just enough so that the next noodle will be exactly 1.6mm'. Right. There is nothing to tell the chef when he reaches 1.5° so I guess the pupils must get their money's worth if they learn to do it right in 30 days!


Using the soba knife's side, the chef scoops the noodles and takes them in his hand.

The noodles are gathered, then slightly twisted and shaken to remove the uchiko flour.

Finally they are carefully laid in a special wooden box until cooking.

 

Cooking
Soba noodles of this size - 1.5x1.6mm - should cook in 60 seconds.

Mr Inuye probably owns the largest pot of boiling water I have ever used. He plunges the noodles in there, watches his Swiss train station clock for 60 seconds, then take them out. The cooked soba noodles are immediately immersed in a bucket of ice-cold water to stop the cooking. 'The texture is better also' he said. For a European gourmet it is quite difficult to understand how cold noodles could be better than warm ones but the Japanese do not do such things on a whim. I suspect they must be right but I can't say I'd rather eat them cold.

 

Chef Inuye asked us 'Are you guys hungry?' - well sure. We ate the soba noodles he just cooked, served with the traditional sugar-soy sauce-mirin dip and freshly grated wasabi. I think I can fairly say I didn't get many brownie points when I told the chef the dip reminded me of miso. Well it's brown and salty at least.

 

These are deep fried soba noodles served as an appetizer.

 

Now you try
Suddendly that was it. The chef's assistants had set up two tables such as the one below and it was our turn to try and make soba.

At first everything went fine, but the flattening is really not as easy as one could gather from chef Inuye's smooth movements. But we managed to finish our batch all right with some tips from the three cooks watching us with a friendly amusement and salvos of 'You are very good sobatician'. When I started to roll the dough backwards they laughed (very politely) and praised my 'Advanced soba making technique'. The work is surprisingly exhausting as all muscles are contracted to make a new, difficult movement, and the upper body is leaning towards the table.

The cutting is the most fun. No surprise, it's really hard to get 1.6mm noodles consistently. At some point I put my hand heavily over the cutting board and almost cut all my noodles in half with the pressure. Definitely a bad mistake in a soba academy. But check the result on the picture above, not so bad for a first time!

Although the lesson wasn't cheap - I promised the chef not to disclose the special discount he gave us - I would definitely warmly recommend it to anybody who loves fun cooking techniques, hand pasta making and of course soba noodles.

You can buy all the equipment - sieve, rolling pins, knifes, gauges, wooden boxes and even chef Inuye's own book and DVD - at the academy. The space itself is beautiful, a Japanese ode to gourmandise in light wood and stainless steel.

The chef is really celebrity-chef style and I assume he must be on TV rather frequently as a soba expert. He has alumni all over the world. And a very nice guy too.

Tsukiji Soba Academy
http://soba.specialist.co.jp
a.inoue@specialist.co.jp
Tel: 03-5148-5559
Fax: 03-5148-5510
Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan


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66 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Su Lin Han
My family will be visiting Tokyo in early April and we are interested
in taking a private lesson on soba making. How long does the class
last? How do you find out availability and pricing (for four people)? I
would appreciate it if you could provide me with the contact
information of the soba academy. Thanks.
  • #2
  • Answered by fx
You need to contact the 'Sobatician' through his website at  soba.specialist.co.jp and arrange a class. Very nice guy and he speaks English really well.
  • #3
  • Comment by Dana
The website you mentioned before is all in Japanese. I would like to register for a course but I don't know who to write to...
  • #4
  • Comment by Li
Hey FX, great post on soba making! I had a very nice cha soba where the noodle was made on site. Nothing as elaborate as what you have shown here though. I would love to give this noodle a go at home... any advice? I know this will sound truly debauched but seeing how my rolling skills aren't that hot (with or without a guide), I was planning on using a pasta machine! What do you think?
  • #5
  • Comment by Craig
Hey, great post, really enjoyed it. I had cold soba noodles when I was in Japan and didn't care for them much (shame on me). Now I've seen what goes into making them I feel guilty! Astonishing stuff and really informative. Great article.
  • #6
  • Comment by jessie
Hi there. Great article and pictures! You really have helped me a lot on my research. I will be going over to Tokyo to shoot for a Food & Travel program. Would love to meet up with Akila Inouye so that we can feature him on our show. Would you happen to have his email or mobile number? Thanks much! jessieliew@ochrepictures.com
  • #7
  • Answered by fx
Jessie, I have updated the contact information for the Sobatician and hope you'll get through to him.
  • #8
  • Comment by D
Great site but I recommend actually going to Izushi in the Kansai region.  Izushi is the traditional home of soba noodles.  The small town has numerous soba shops and I was fortunate enough to have made soba there.
  • #9
  • Comment by marshal
Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it!
  • #10
  • Comment by hely
Excellent!
  • #11
  • Comment by dirk
Thank you for you work! Good Luck.
  • #12
  • Comment by Nicole
I just wanted to say WOW!+
  • #13
  • Comment by alex
Very good site! I like it! Thanks!
  • #14
  • Comment by marshal
I just wanted to say WOW!!
  • #15
  • Comment by Hillari
Excellent texture.
  • #16
  • Comment by Tim
Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it!
  • #17
  • Comment by poiu
This is a great tutorial thanks!
  • #18
  • Comment by ricko
Excellent resource you've got here! Will definetely be back!
  • #19
  • Comment by mason
Great site!
  • #20
  • Comment by Rob Bright
Having just come back from a trip to Nagano (an area reknowned in Japan for it's soba) I have to say - cold soba noodles with the tsuyu, the traditional name of the dipping sauce, is very refreshing, if not a little overpowering. A perfect summer dish in the scorching humidity of mid-summer Tokyo.Making them can take anywhere from 1 hour to 2 hours - simply because, as the writer says, you have to be delicate with them, not like pasta making.Worth trying and making and just remember - the thickness width is only a recommendation. In Nagano, they had them thinner and fatter, longer and shorter than the measurements above.
  • #21
  • Comment by candylover
Hello, great site. I found here many interesting information. Thank you very much!
  • #22
  • Comment by Bill
This is a great tutorial thanks!
  • #23
  • Comment by Smit
Pretty nice site, wants to see much more on it!
  • #24
  • Comment by zack
Looking for information and found it at this great site…
  • #25
  • Comment by rty
Excellent web site I will be visiting often.
  • #26
  • Comment by Macha
Cold soba are very tasty during the hot and humid summer days. They couldn't possibly as tasty hot then.
  • #27
  • Comment by gari
This is a great tutorial thanks!
  • #28
  • Comment by Gootch
As a half-Jap growing up in the US, cold soba noodles and Mom's special tsuyu were a summer food staple.  Even now, in Okinawa, I eat such soba at least once a week as comfort food.  Some soba contains yam flour (zarusoba), which changes the texture and taste.  Green tea soba (matchasoba) is exquisite, especially with a quail egg (uzura no tamago) in the tsuyu.YUM!  I might take a trip up to Tokyo and learn how to make soba!  Awesome entry!
  • #29
  • Comment by Roger Pigozzi
Great article. very easy to under stand.could you tell me where i might pruchase a soyba machine, sorry our volume here at UCLA is too much to make by hand, it would need to be UL and NSF approved.thank you,Roger Pigozzi; C.E.C
  • #30
  • Comment by james
About eating soba cold:1) Good soba should be eat cold, so you can get the consistent texture mixed with the dipping sauce.2) Corollary of 1); soba is man's food, verses udon as woman's.  Once soba is served(especially in a hot bowl of soup), you have to finish it quickly so it won't become mushy.  Hence, when table manner is under consideration, udon get upper hand.
  • #31
  • Comment by Melanie Minduik
Hi, My friend and I are interested in taking a soba making lesson.  How much is it, how long is the class, when is it offered?Mel
  • #32
  • Comment by Lama
The Japanese love it cold. And me too. I think have it cold brings out the freshness of the noodle.
  • #33
  • Comment by Kathleen Bailey
I liked reading the soba article, but I don't want to learn how to make the noodles.  I would like a class, in English Language, but in Tokyo, on Japanese cooking.  Any other cooking schools there that you know about?
  • #34
  • Comment by Linda
Hello-  Hajimashite Yoroshiku onegaishmasu,  My name is Linda.  I currently work as an engineer in the US- I am intersted in noodles and would like to move to Japan for personal and family reasons.  I have always been intersted in learning more about noodles and pastas (somen is one of my favorite meals). I can speak minimal Japanese  - would you know of any jobs that might be available in noodle shops or would I be able to gather more information about your course (in English? - it seems your site is mainly Japanese).  Thank you.  - Rindayori
  • #35
  • Comment by steven salkow
Great article. Very informative. Splendid photos
  • #36
  • Answered by fx
Steven thank you for visiting my blog!
Just got back from Tokyo, went to Tsukiji to see the morning tuna auction, we went to a sidewalk cafe and bought soba/tempura (ebi) soup and it was unbelievably tasty!  now of course I'm trying to find all the ingredients back here in San Francisco to duplicate that "soba feeling". Your article was very informative, and if I had the time, I'd enroll in Inouye-san's academy!  thanks for this well thought-out, very detailed article. For now, I'll just remain a heretic and go with soba bought in the Japantown area here. Don't hate me. Peace and Long Life,T'Surakmaat
  • #38
  • Answered by fx
T'surakmaat, I'm sure that you can find enough good fish in San Francisco to make very valid sushi! For the soba, it's a difficult art but if you long for homemade pasta I'd recommend you start with Italian pasta. And if you love buckwheat pasta begin with Pizzocheri (see my other article), they are a breeze to make. Then you can graduate to soba making - a good reason to come back to Japan if you need any!
  • #39
  • Comment by Mochi
Thank you for an absolutely wonderful & informative post! The photos are just great!
  • #40
  • Comment by sunao sato
I am looking for the books about buckwheat noodles that were written in English.
Are there any kind of Japanese traditional buckwheat noodles's books in your storeage?
Greetings! i was bowsing on the net trying to look for scholls in tokyo that offers short courses of cooking. Finally i got into your site, and its really grest to see al the pictures that you posted about soba noodles making. anyways woul you recommend any school that offers short couses? Thank you and I hope to hear from you soon.
  • #42
  • Comment by hd laun
All very well -- but have you any idea where can I get buckwheat flour in the US of A?
The best thing about your blog is the way you've explained using pics... gr8 work thanks!!!
  • #44
  • Answered by fx
Amarnath, thanks, indeed I love to show everything step-by-step, much of the beauty is in the making.
  • #45
  • Comment by Xavier
You have to learn how to make chinese noodles now and I guess you will master most of the pasta techniques of the entire world ! I never had the chance to get real hand-made chinese noodles here in Switzerland nor in China but I did in Paris. Really impressive though to see how a small piece of dough is elongated into a ten meters noodle with only hands weaving. Next time you go to Paris, give it a try : "Les Pates Vivantes", 46 rue du fg Montmartre, M° Gd Boulevards. It seems they are the only ones in this part of the world to make chinese noodles from scratch in front of you. A bargain !
  • FX's answer→ Xavier, this is a really cool tip, I've been meaning to learn chinese noodle making for years, but had no clue where to begin. Do you know if they give noodlemaking lessons? Do they speak anything but Chinese? Thanks for the tip!

  • #47
  • Comment by Mochi
Based on this post we took a private soba making course at the Tsukiji Soba Academy. Mr Inouye speaks excellent English and was really quick to answer our inquiries via e-mail. Basically we could pick the date & time for our course (it was supposed to be about 3 hours but we enjoyed the thing so much that we ended up spending some 5 hours at the school). We also couldn't resist stocking on the equipment (soba knife, rolling pin, soba cutting board, soba flours). The price of the course wasn't too bad either, given the private hands on instruction and all the information we got! Strongly recommended, if you want to experience something different on your trip to Japan.
  • FX's answer→ Mochi, I am really glad my article helped you find Mr Inouye's door - he is a gentle man, isnt'he?
    Have you tried making soba at home?

  • #49
  • Comment by John McCann
Thanks for the site and the information.  It's very well done.

I have a question on your camera work.  What sort of camera do you use and how do you get those low-light shots (I can't imagine the Soba making kitchen lighting is ideal for photography ;-))?

From the background it doesn't look as though you're using a wide aperture so I'm very curious.....


Thanks

  • FX's answer→ Thank you John!
    This particular article was one of my very first and I used a Nikon D80. Today I'd use a D300 or another of these new cameras (D800, Nikon D3, Canon EOS 5D Mark II) which have superlative high ISO performance, or just an off camera flash like explained on Strobist.com

  • #51
  • Comment by Mary
What a wonderful cooking adventure!!! Thank you for sharing it with all of us and as always,for taking those spectacular pictures. I think that your soba turned out great for your first time!!!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Mary, but I worked right under the master Sobatician's eyes!

This is absolutely the best how-to article I have read in ages. THank you so much, I am amazed, i feel like i ould so make them right now :-) Great post, bookmarked.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for your visit, I hope you get to try making soba at home some day!

  • #55
  • Comment by Denise Wong
i would love to eat this dish i tried makeing it but it wouldent come out but i looks great.
  • FX's answer→ It is difficult!

This was a great article. I saw a guy in Namba (Osaka) today doing this infront of his restaurant.
  • FX's answer→ Isn't it captivating?

  • #59
  • Comment by Mary Beth
Thank you very much. I enjoyed your soba adventure very much. I love soba noodles - 100% buckwheat and they are crazy expensive. Now I know why.
Your pictures and text were so well done. I may have to try this at home. Is that crazy?
  • FX's answer→ Mary Beth I don't think you can actually make soba noodles with 100% buckwheat flour, they would break I think. Trying to make them at homes yourself just like a Japanese soba chef? Well you'll have fun but it's really hard and quite impossible if you don't have the right tools. However you can do Pizzocheri (check my other article) they are really easy to do home.

  • #61
  • Comment by mark
Thanks for that- beautifully photographed and entertaining. Been trying to decide if I want to atempt making these things myself. Think it's worth a go! Have to work out something with that awesome knife....
  • FX's answer→ Yes, the knife itself makes it worth pursuing!

  • #63
  • Comment by charis
I've visited the website and there are a number of different class options I was wondering which was the one you took?
  • FX's answer→ Not sure which one we took but call Mr Inouye, he is very nice and speaks good English.

Encantada por haberte encontrado! Tus artículos son estupendos y sobre todo los que hablan sobre Japón y sus técnicas culinarias. Me encantan. Y gracias a Ricardo por traducirlos.
Un saludo.
  • #66
  • Comment by Kian Chang
I make my noodles by myself.but soba more complex than i imagine.it's cool to try them onetime.



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