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The types of buckwheat flour and the types of soba noodles
In one word, “soba” means noodles made from buckwheat. But this is not very precise. There are countless types of soba-noodles, for example, “white noodles” and “black noodles” (I will explain them later in the paragraph below). Each soba-shop serves its own soba-noodles. They select a certain type of buckwheat flour to make their soba-noodles special. Becoming familiar with the structure of buckwheat seeds, the types of buckwheat flour, and a variety of soba-noodles will help you to know whether the soba shop indeed has the soba you like or not, even before entering the place.
About the buckwheat seed
The seed of buckwheat is shaped like a triangular pyramid whose bottom is curved. Its inside structure is layered, and each of the layers has a different color and characteristics. The outermost part is the chaff: it is dark-brown and is rich in fiber. The layer which is just inside of the chaff is called endocarp: it is ocher (or pale-green during the buckwheat season) in color, and is the most aromatic part; it is rich in gluten, rutin, and chlorophyll. The next inner layer is endosperm: it is white, and it contains a lot of starch. The core is the embryo bud: it is pale-cream color, and like the endocarp, it is rich in protein and pigment.
The types of buckwheat flour
There are several types of buckwheat flour, depending on which layer(s) of the buckwheat seed is selected. Generally, the seeds are stripped of the chaff and then ground with a stone mill (the traditional way), or a machine using two rollers (the modern way).
The first flour is that which is first taken from the mill. It is the flour of the endosperms. Its color is white; its main ingredient is starch; its taste is faintly sweet, and it has a slight aroma. Since the first flour contains little gluten and is sandy, to the touch, some thickener is needed when making soba.
The second flour is collected from the mill after the first flour. This flour is a mixture of the remaining endosperms and the embryo buds. Because of the embryo buds, the second flour is pale greenish-yellow or brown. It is nutritious, and has a pleasant buckwheat aroma. The texture of soba made from the second flour is said to be smooth because it contains less fibers.
The third flour is made from the all of the remaining parts, which are gathered and milled again. This flour consists of the remaining endosperms, embryo buds, and endocarps. Its color is pale green or dark-brown; its aroma is stronger than any other types of flour. It is relatively sticky, and rich in nutrition. However, because of the higher quantity of fibers from the endocarps, its texture is inferior to the first and second flour.
Whole grain flour is the flour that results when all layers of the buckwheat seeds, including the chaff, are milled together. This flour has the all characteristics which the first, second, and third flour have. It has a blackish tinge which is derived from the color of the chaff. A lot of fibers from the endocarps and the chaffs make the texture of the soba coarser.
The variety of soba
Soba is basically made from buckwheat flour, water, and some wheat flour (if it is needed). But certain factors will diversify the types of soba: whether it is hand- or machine-made; whether wheat flour is mixed as a thickener or not; which layer (or layers) of buckwheat flour is used.
Is it a human or a machine that makes the soba?
“Teuchi” Soba (Hand-Made Soba)
A person who decides to build his own castle of soba in the future will be called a soba-master when his dream comes true. It is said that it takes at least three years to be a soba-master: someone who is well acquainted with choosing the appropriate flour, kneading the soba-dough, rolling it out, and cutting it into noodles.
Hand-made soba is the noodle which is made by these skillful people. The noodles made by each soba-master is unique, because each soba-master has his own philosophy about soba. The features of soba will be determined by the following factors: where the buckwheat is grown; which layers of buckwheat seeds is chosen for the foundation of the soba; how is the soba prepared with the carefully selected flour, and so on.
If the soba restaurant which you visit serves their hand-made soba, you might be able to watch the soba-master preparing his soba right in front of you. It is fun to see the master rolling out soba-dough thinly and widely, then folding the dough several times, and cutting it into noodles with a special soba-knife.
At a glance, the noodles look as though they were almost equal in width. But upon closer inspection, you will find that they are slightly different in width and also in length: Some are thin or broad; some are tapered; and some are short or long. Somehow, that gives the noodles a “hand-made” appearance that, in this day and age of mechanization, is almost heart-warming!
In the early Meiji Period (from 1868 AD to 1912 AD), the first soba-making machine was invented. The machine rolled out soba-dough thinly, and cut it all at once, like a spaghetti machine. This is still the basic behind the soba-making machines today.
The machine-made soba is cut to equal width without any disorder, which might be the first thing you notice about this type of soba. Technically speaking, in the case of machine-made soba, the amount of water in the soba-dough is much less than that which is needed to make hand-made soba. This is because the machine gives the soba-dough a higher pressure when it rolls the dough out. This type of soba is good to be served hot, as the lesser amount of water prevents the soba from being softened too quickly. But as for the cold soba, its flavor and texture might be inferior to the hand-made soba.
The soba-making machine was invented to make the work easier. In addition, the same amount of noodles can be made in less time. A good point about machine-made soba is that it can be served to a large number of people at a cheaper price. Moreover, the quality of the machine-made soba is getting better with the improvement of the soba-making machines over time.
Is the flour for soba mixed or unmixed?
Mixed Soba (Soba made of a mixture of buckwheat and wheat)
Buckwheat flour by itself doesn’t stick together so well because of the small amount of gluten it contains. That is why somebody in the Edo Period started to use some wheat flour as a thickener when making soba. This way of soba-making soon became popular and is still so even now. The most commonly accepted ratio of wheat to buckwheat is 2 : 8.
The meaning of the Japanese word “soba” is buckwheat. Ever since the introduction of the new type of soba - soba made of buckwheat & wheat flour - there have been arguments about whether such soba could be called soba or not. Yukyoshi Nissintei, who lived in the middle Edo Period (his year of birth and death are unknown), deplored the fact that soba shops at that time mixed in too much wheat flour, as he described in his “The Compendium of Soba” (published in 1751).
Things remained undecided for a long time, but finally, an unspoken agreement was made among the Japanese that even though the soba was made by mixing buckwheat and wheat, such noodles could also be called “soba”. As mentioned above, the typical mixed-soba consists of 20% wheat and 80% buckwheat. Since this mixture ratio is very traditional, the soba restaurants proudly announce that ratio to their customers. Even though wheat is mixed, we can still enjoy quite nice soba which doesn’t lose the goodness of buckwheat. If there is no mention of the mixture ratio, you can assume that the wheat content is more than 20% of the whole flour. The more wheat is mixed in, the stronger the characteristics of wheat the soba will have. Therefore, it seems that at some point, the mixed-soba should change its name to “buckwheat & wheat noodles”. But strangely, all of the mixed-soba is called soba even though the ratio of wheat exceeds that of buckwheat. What do you think about this situation on soba in Japan?
As an appendix of this part, we shall look at the thickener. Wheat is not the only thickener used. Japanese yam or a kind of seaweed called “funori” are also used as thickeners, especially in the provincial regions. They might have been more available in those areas than wheat. The texture of soba becomes different from buckwheat & wheat noodles. Soba made of buckwheat and seaweed is called “hegi” soba, which is a specialty of Niigata Prefecture. Due to the seaweed, the texture of soba becomes slithery smooth and rich in water content.
“Towari” Soba (Soba made of 100% buckwheat)
The greatest soba in Japan is considered to be “towari” soba. The Japanese word “towari” means 100% in English. Therefore “towari” soba means that the soba is made using only buckwheat flour.
Historically, at the early stage of soba development, soba was made using only buckwheat flour. It was difficult to shape the flour into noodles, and the taste was not good. This was why someone thought of using some wheat flour as a thickener to improve the quality of soba.
But for those who have mastered the art of making soba, it is possible to make great soba with only buckwheat flour. Such people have existed since the Edo Period. They established a line of the sophisticated soba, which was another line of popular soba with some, even a lot, of wheat flour as a thickener. Special technique and the finest buckwheat flour are necessary for making this type of soba. You can enjoy the “buckwheatness” fully, some of which are weaker in the ordinary type of soba. The price for this soba is supposed to be the highest among all types of soba.
Is the flour for soba taken from the center, middle, surface, or whole layer(s) of the buckwheat seeds?
“Sarashina” Soba (White Soba)
Generally, white soba indicates the type of soba which is made using only the first flour: more accurately, the finest first-flour with highly purified starch content. The highest skill is required to mill the flour, and in addition, only a small amount of flour can be collected; thus its price is expensive. Because of the large amount of the starch in the flour, it is necessary to add some thickener when making soba. Its whiteness, its sophisticated appearance, and its refined sweetness are praised although the aroma of buckwheat is weak.
Colored-soba such as black (using sesame), green (using green tea), yellow (using egg), and pink (using pickled “ume”: Japanese plum), is also a part of white soba; it makes good use of the soba like a “white canvas”.
The name “Sarashina” is said to be taken from a place-name in Nagano Prefecture, which has always been one of the biggest buckwheat-production areas. The name is also used for the name of the traditional soba restaurant families in the Tokyo area, whose origins date back to the late Edo Period (from 1603 AD to 1867 AD). Of course, their selling point is white soba.
“Inaka” Soba (Black Soba)
The soba is often considered to be the opposite of “white soba”. It is the soba which is made from whole grain flour, so its color becomes blackish. Other characteristics of this soba are that it is relatively broad & short, and easy to snap; it has a strong buckwheat aroma. The word “inaka” means countryside. Soba used to be prepared at each household in villages nationwide and be served to special guests or on special occasions. The buckwheat flour which was used for the domestic-soba making was whole grain flour, because people couldn’t separate the flour so well which was ground with the stone mill (or they didn’t separate the flour, as did the people in cities). Black soba is better eaten hot, because when cold, it is difficult to slurp it up like the way cold noodles are eaten.
Black and white are the two extremes of the soba on this category. Between them, there is a countless numbers of so-called “gray soba”, whose shade of gray is determined by the degree of lightness. Although it is impossible to cover all of the gray soba, I shall introduce some of the types that are as popular as white and black soba.
“Yabu” Soba (Soba which is made of whole buckwheat seeds except for the chaff)
The grayish color tinged with pale-green is the first thing you will notice about “yabu” soba. The whole buckwheat seeds without the chaff are used for the soba flour. When flour is kneaded with water, it becomes pale-green because of the endocarps. This delicate color in the endocarps will disappear with time after the buckwheat season; this is merely a natural phenomenon. Therefore, the soba out of the season is not tinged with pale-green but gray.
The Japanese word “yabu” means bush in English. The first restaurant, which tried to distinguish itself by serving this type of soba, was given the nickname “yabu” because the restaurant was surrounded by bushes. This soba restaurant is now one of the three traditional soba restaurant families in the Tokyo area. Many “yabu”-soba restaurants continue in the spirit of “yabu”.
“Nami” Soba (Soba which is made of second & third flour)
This soba might be the most typical type in Japan. It is made using the second flour, or a mixture of the second & the third flour. The color is whitish-gray, and it has a rich buckwheat aroma. If there is no mention of the buckwheat flour, you will know that the soba is of this type. The Japanese word “nami” means “standard” in English, so it might not be worthy of special mention.
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