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Noodles Are More Nutritious Than Chicken, Beef or Cheese

By: Epicure

Date Posted: 2000-06-02

In Japan, the story goes that when Buddhist monks climbed into the high mountains for long and arduous retreats they carried with them only a cooking pot and a sack of ground buckwheat. So nutritious was the buckwheat that they were able to survive for weeks on it alone.

Recent studies suggest that eating buckwheat lowers cholesterol. Itís high in fiber. And, as the monks intuitively understood, ground buckwheat is extremely nutritious, surpassing chicken, beef, soybeans, cheese and peanuts in utilizable protein.

One of the most popular uses for buckwheat in Japan is soba, a thin noodle of nutty flavor. Long part of the marginal macrobiotic food subculture in some Western countries, soba has recently entered the palette of Western chefs as part of a larger Japanese noodle family which includes udon, a pale silky wheat noodle, ramen, a yellow Chinese derivative, and somen, a bone white noodle which is served in a bowl of ice water.

Buckwheat pasta is a relatively recent innovation in Japan, going back just four centuries, according to the Book of Soba by James Udesky, the definitive work in English on the noodle and the cuisine which now surrounds it.

Buckwheat originated in southern China millennia ago, and spread westward through the Asian steppes into Europe and the New World. It moved east into Korea, and from Korea to Japan.

Physically and culturally buckwheat and rice are opposites. Rice is the food of wealth and luxury. It needs flat land, rich soil, a long growing season and warm weather. Buckwheat , on the other hand, thrives on steep slopes and shallow, acrid ground. It matures in only 75 days.

Soba came to the fore during the Edo Period when Tokyo transformed from a small provincial way station to a major metropolis. A quick, cheap, nutritious meal, it was a staple of the laborers who built the city. During the next several hundred years working class soba shops boomed in Tokyo; their numbers probably outstripped all other kinds of eating establishments.

Beginning in the 19th century, soba split into high and low cuisine. The haute cuisine took shape as samurai began to patronize a small minority of soba shops which transformed themselves from utilitarian noodle stands into sumptuous restaurants, replete with exquisite interiors, costly serving implements and, of course, the highest quality soba.

Like so much else in Japanese culture, these progenitors of haute soba cuisine refined folkways into something of great elegance and sophistication while leaving an essential roughness and simplicity intact.

The few high-class soba restaurants in Japan have done nothing to diminish the noodleís popular renditions. The traditional soba shop thrives. It is estimated that 40000 or 50000 exist today in Japan; they are often no more than a cramped counter fronted by a line of rickety stools. Most shops sell bowls of machine-made, mass Ėproduced noodles for as little as $3. And three minutes is about how long it takes a harried salaryman on his lunch break to wolf down his noodles.

These places are a far cry from the 40 or 50 haute soba restaurants, all run by chefs with over 20 years of experience, who preside over young apprentices slaving to learn the masterís secrets. Great soba must be made from scratch. The saying goes that it takes three years to learn the art - the first to mix the dough, the second to roll, the third to cut.

Honmura An restaurant in New York City, which has two Tokyo branches, claims to be the one haute soba cuisine restaurant in the United States. Koichi Kobari, a trendy dresser who likes to proselytize, runs it. His family has been bound up in soba for three generations. Soba makers are structured on a system of family guilds.

Kobari says that the best soba is made from almost pure buckwheat flour, which is why it takes a true soba chef so long to learn to handle the dough. Buckwheat has little or no gluten. If not worked just right, the dough chaffs and fractures.

In even the highest-grade soba, whole-wheat flour is mixed with the buckwheat as a binding agent. The higher the percentage of whole wheat, the more malleable the dough. A high wheat content compromises the sobaís integrity, however. In commercially produced soba the wheat proportion can be as high as 70 percent.

To get a sense of what true soba making was all about, I watched Haruhiko Ishidoya, one of Honmura Anís Tokyo-trained chefs, as he went through the process. The simple wooden implements he used dated back three centuries. His movements were stylized and exact to the point of ritual.

Ishidoya mixed the buckwheat flour with water in a large lacquer bowl, grinding and mashing the course dough through his fingers. Using his whole body, he rocked back and forth in a quick rhythm; a kinetic force rose in his body and flowed through fingers into the dough, imbuing in with energy, elasticity and resilience.

After kneading, he whirled the dough into a smooth ball and rolled it out ona atable of raw cypress wood, manufacturing a paper-thin sheet 12 feet long and 3 feet wide. Folding the sheet like a bolt of fabric, he wielded a tall cleaver guided by a board(komaita) to julienne the thick-stacked bolt.

Ishidoya flipped the fresh-made soba into wooden trays. The noodles were ferried to the kitchen where they cooked for 30 seconds in a massive vat of boiling water. They were then plunged into ice water to retain their al dente quality, and to keep them from sticking.

One whole side of the kitchen at Honmura An is devoted to noodle cooking: the huge stainless steel vats of the caldron and cold plunge are separated by a deep sink with spigots of running water. The constant movements of water, the series of pools and baths, is quintessentially Japanese. Immersion upon immersion continues until the clean taste sings.

After the noodles, the most important part of soba cuisine is the dipping sauce or soup stock (dahsi). The stock, a mix of soy, mirin(a sweet rice wine used in cooking) konbu(kelp) , dried bonito and sugar, is the chefís signature. The dashi is smokey mellow, slightly sweet.

Typically, soba is served in a deep ceramic bowl, swimming in soup and topped with an assortment of savory garnishes like sliced duck, whipped mountain yam, button mushrooms, wild greens, seaweed and tempura.

The piquant condiments that are always served with soba set off its subtleties. They are grated daikon(white radish), wasabi (green horseradish), scallions, and shichimi togarashi, a seven flavored spice of red pepper flakes, dried mandarin orange peel, white poppy seeds, powdered sansho, hempseed, and shiso (an aromatic leafy herb) or nori, the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi.

Not to be outdone, soba chefs have devised a sushi where noodles replace the rice. Iso Age is a playful variation on this theme. Prawns are wrapped in soba, shiso leaf and nori, and then deep fried. Honmura An serves a thick sushiroll (like a futomaki) where soba is mixed with mashed prawns, omllette, shiitake mushrooms and mitsuba herb.

The haute cuisine is rounded out with soba crepes; soba dumplings, great dunked in the dashi or mixed with a starch and or vegetable an deep fried; soba patties of varying types; and soba mochi.

Finally, it should be mentioned that slurping soba (and other Japanese noodles) is de riguer, that dried soba of fairly good quality can be bought in most specialty supermarkets, and that itís always to seiro-plain noodles served in lacquer on a bamboo mat that the true soba lover returns.

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