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Soba, the very traditional Japanese noodles
- This is one thing you should not miss out on during your stay in Japan! -
To begin with
“Soba”, buckwheat noodles, is one type of national noodle in Japan. It is loved by the Japanese, especially those who live in the Tokyo area. Even though the noodles itself are originated in China, the world of the Japanese soba, which the Japanese developed over hundreds of years, is a Japanese original!
Compared to other traditional Japanese food, such as “sushi” or “tempura”, it seems that there are a more stories about soba: the way of making soba, the types of soba, the menu of soba, soba utensils, and the way of eating soba. The reason might be that soba has been the food for the ordinary people for many centuries. In other words, it has been a light meal for a long time now, unlike sushi and tempura, which became “higher class” foods at some point, although both of their beginnings were also light meals.
Quite a long time has passed since those soba stories were first told. Nowadays, people eat soba without remembering or caring about them. Why can buckwheat flour be made into noodles? Why is soba preferred more in Tokyo than Osaka or Kyoto? Why are some soba menus not easy to imagine, even if you see the name of the dish in the menu? This writing will deal with soba, and will relate those little soba stories, in the hope that your soba experiences will be more meaningful!
The contents include:
The History of Soba
New dishes are born when the opportunity presents itself, and so was with soba. It took a long time for soba to be developed as a “new dish”, and to come to be accepted by the Japanese. This section will focus on the historical, cultural and some scientific aspects of soba.
First - the cultivation of buckwheat -
Buckwheat is a crop which has been cultivated in Japan presumably since the early Jomon Period (from about 12,000 BC to about 300 BC). Because buckwheat can be grown in barren soil, it was grown as a relief crop when rice cultivation failed nationwide in the early Nara Period (from 710 AD to 794 AD); also, it had been the main crop for the people who lived in the mountainous areas. For a very long time, the way people ate the buckwheat was to boil the grains in water, to make dumplings with the flour, or to knead the flour with hot water.
Second - the idea of making flour into noodles -
Noodles made from wheat flour were introduced to Japan as a Chinese food. There are mainly two ways to form wheat flour into noodles. In the Nara Period (from 710 AD to 794 AD), the method of stretching out wheat dough (wheat flour, water, and salt) until it becomes like a rope or a string was introduced. In the Kamakura Period (form 1192 AD to 1185 AD), another method was introduced: the wheat dough is rolled out thinly on the wooden board, and is then folded and cut with a knife. Soba is prepared in the latter method. But despite of the introduction of cutting noodles, people at that time kept eating buckwheat in the same ways explained in the paragraph above.
Third - the idea to form buckwheat flour into noodles -
Wheat and buckwheat, once they are ground into flour, might look similar except for the color. From the viewpoint of nutrition, too, both of them contain starch, protein, minerals, and vitamins, although the composition varies depending on the types of flour. But there is one big difference between wheat and buckwheat, which is whether it contains either a little gluten, or a larger amount. Gluten becomes sticky and elastic when it is given some water and kneaded. Therefore, the particles of wheat flour, when water is added and kneaded, stick together so well that it is easy to form the dough into noodles; these could then be boiled in water.
On the other hand, the particles of buckwheat flour stick together only weakly because of the small amount of gluten, so it is very difficult to form noodles with buckwheat flour. Nonetheless, at some point, somebody or other came up with the idea of making noodles from buckwheat flour. What was the motivation that drove that person to make noodles from buckwheat flour, which doesn’t stick together easily? In the early stage, the spread-out dough was cut into broad noodles so that they wouldn’t snap apart when boiled in water. Gradually, after a process of trial and error, buckwheat dough could be cut thinly like the current soba, then boiled and served without being broken. The soba at that time was served only warm: it was boiled, washed with lukewarm water, put on a bamboo colander poring some hot water over it, and left for a while, covered by a lid, before being served. It is said that the noodles were still not strong enough to be boiled for a long time, and that is why they were put on the colander to ripen. The texture of the early soba is assumed to not have been as good as the current soba.
Who first hit on the idea of using some amount of wheat flour as a thickener when making soba? Somebody who was good at science? Or perhaps somebody worked for a soba shop got to this idea just by chance? It was during the Edo Period (from 1603 AD to 1867 AD) that the epoch-making discovery of blending some wheat flour into buckwheat flour when preparing soba was made. The ratio of wheat and buckwheat was 2 : 8; the 20 % wheat flour made soba-making easier, and also made its texture smoother. This golden ratio became the very foundation of making soba and has been handed down from generation to generation to the present day.
Fourth - the original soba soup -
For the people who live in the Tokyo area, soba is eaten with a soy-sauce based sauce or soup. So when I first got to know that soba in the very old days was eaten with “miso”-based sauce or soup, it sounded like something different and unrefined. But it turned out to be natural, because the culture of the people in the Tokyo area about 400 years ago, where the soba culture will bloom far later, wasn’t refined either.
The current Tokyo area, one of the world’s megalopolises, used to be a savage land. Tokyo Bay was larger than it is today, and when high tides occurred, the sea water came around in front of the current Imperial Palace, and at low tide, it became a marsh land. Many other places were covered by mountains and forests.
In 1603 AD, the nation was unified by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and Tokyo became the capital of Japan under the name of Edo. People around the nation started to live in the new capital city. There were no special industries in the early Edo City, therefore, food - condiments such as salt, sugar, soy-sauce, and “sake” - were transported from other places by land or sea. Things that came from Kyoto (the former capital city) or Osaka (the commercial center) were praised as high-graded.
Soba soup was, then, made with Japanese-style soup using soy-sauce, sake, and sugar, which were transported from the western areas. It is said that the soup was like what was used for eating wheat noodles (light-colored and saltier), which were preferred by the Kyoto and Osaka people. Interestingly, the early Edo people also preferred wheat noodles, as did the people in the west. Thus, in the early Edo area, wheat noodles were much more popular than soba. Was it because the Edo people were attracted to the western people, with their sophisticated culture, or simply because the soba at that time was not matured enough?
As the capital city Edo developed, the industries in the suburban areas grew as well. In the early 17th century, soy-sauce breweries were established in what is now the Chiba area, but the quality was inferior to the soy-sauce brewed in the western areas. In the early 19th century, there was a revolution in soy-sauce brewing in the eastern areas: more wheat was added than in the western-style soy-sauce. This made the color darker, the taste thicker, and the flavor richer. It was the birth of the Edo-style soy-sauce! The Edo people started to prefer the new soy-sauce more than the western-style soy-sauce (the first reason might be that it was cheaper than the transported soy-sauce). As a result, the soy-sauce for making soba soup was replaced: from the western-style to the eastern-style. In this way, the standard ingredients for making soba soup were finally determined: soup-stock made from dried bonito, eastern-style soy-sauce, Japanese sweet sake, and sugar. This is the recipe that has been passed down to this day.
Fifth - soba, the soul food of the Edo people and the Tokyo people -
Thus it was that soba was fully developed in the Edo area: thin, smooth noodles with a rich aroma of buckwheat, and special thick, dark-colored soup into which cold-soba can be dipped, or which is poured over hot-soba. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the Edo people first preferred the wheat noodles to buckwheat noodles as did the people in western Japan. When a new dish comes into the world, it has to be liked by a certain number of people, otherwise it will fade away after a while. Soba is now undoubtedly considered to be one of the traditional Japanese foods, especially in the Tokyo area. What made soba so famous?
As the Edo period progressed, the Edo people started to have their own distinctive character. For example, they had a preference for anything new, they were short-tempered, had a rebellious spirit toward authorities, and so on. Soba was a new food. Its taste was not bad any more. It could be eaten like fast food, unlike wheat noodles, which took a longer time to boil, and to chew as well. Soba seems to be more suitable to the taste of the people of Edo. In addition, at some point, the Edo people started to consider wheat noodles as old-fashioned. This coincided with a cultural confrontation between the eastern area, Edo, and the western area, Osaka and Kyoto. It is possible that the Edo people might have started to choose to eat soba very consciously. By the late 18th century, in the Edo area, the number of soba shops exceeded the number of wheat-noodle shops. Nothing could stop the advance of soba, and finally, in the mid 19th century, the Edo area became the city of the newest noodles: soba!
It was in Edo where a variety of menus for soba, as well as special utensils & manners for soba were created. People could order their noodles cold or hot, and also could select a topping from a list - "nori”(dried laver), egg, wild-duck, shellfish, “tempura”, and so on - depending on their mood, or seasonal occasions. A small soba-cup became popular as an accompaniment to the cold noodles on bamboo-basket tray. This is used to pour the thick dipping-soup, so that you can eat the noodles with a small amount at a time. Slurping soba with a vigorous sound had become a habit, which seems to mach to the sense of the Edo people. After eating the noodles, drinking hot water which was used to boil soba became commonplace.
Furthermore, soba was integrated into the daily life of the Edo people. People enjoyed the first buckwheat flour of the year as “fresh soba” during the early autumn; gave soba to the neighbors as a gift when they moved into a new house; and celebrated New Year’s Eve with soba, wishing for longevity. In this way, soba became the “soul food” among the Edo people, and it is still so for the modern inhabitants of Tokyo!
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