Soba/buckwheat noodles (Recipe: asparagus, pepper and peanut soba)
A favorite story from the archives, updated with new recipe, photos and links.
So there we were -- Ted, his sister Jill, Cousin Martin and me -- huddled in the kitchen in my friend Rika's house, in the tiny village of Mihama on the west coast of Japan, in the middle of winter, drinking sake to stay warm, and learning how to make soba noodles.
It was our second visit to Japan, February 1997, windy and snowing, cold beyond cold. We had come to Mihama after a couple of weeks of traveling in Vietnam, where it was hot beyond hot, and our bodies were having adjustment issues.
Rika's house sits right on the beach; except for the kitchen, the rooms are heated only by space heaters, so even without the promise of a cooking lesson, we'd still have gravitated towards the only room that had both heat and food.
According to the traditions of the village, which is home to 50 families, property passes from oldest son to oldest son, and so Rika's husband, Ichiro, came to own the house, a fishing boat, and the fields that supply his family with rice and vegetables. Ichiro teaches at an agricultural high school, where students learn about all aspects of the growing cycle, including cooking, and he is quite a good cook, too.
Soba are thin, spaghetti-like noodles made of buckwheat flour which, because it doesn't bind well, is often combined with wheat flour or yam. According to Japanese agricultural regulations, soba must contain at least 30 percent buckwheat; the higher the buckwheat content, the better the noodles, and the nuttier the flavor.
Starting with the buckwheat flour, water, and a small amount of white flour, Ichiro taught us to mix and knead and roll the dough, and then to cut the noodles by hand. While the noodles air-dried for a few minutes, Rika mixed a traditional dipping sauce, a combination of dashi, mirin, and soy. (She also showed us some store-bought sauce she had in the fridge; though they revere the traditional, busy moms in rural Japan also embrace convenience foods.)
Traditionally eaten to celebrate the new year, and delicious all year round, soba (which is almost always sold in dried form) comes in all price ranges, correlating directly to the amount of buckwheat in the noodles. More buckwheat, higher price tag. If you're eating gluten-free, look for 100 percent buckwheat noodles; they do exist, but they are quite delicate, and expensive.
At Rika's house, we ate our soba at room temperature; we were too impatient to wait to taste the fruits of our labor. We wrangled the slippery noodles with chopsticks, dipped them in the sauce, and slurped -- which, fortunately, is considered polite, as it was our only option!
Twelve years later, if I close my eyes, I can recall the taste of that soba, made in a dear friend's kitchen so far away.
Asparagus, pepper and peanut soba
Sometimes you make a sauce so good that you want to put it on everything; this is one of those sauces. I'm going to try it on other kinds of pasta, as a marinade for flank steak, and in a tofu stir-fry. And maybe on a burger. Or on toast! Because it's best served at room temperature or cold, this dish would be great for a picnic; toss in some cooked chicken, shrimp or tofu for a complete main course. Serves 2; can be doubled.
For the sauce (quantities approximate):
2 Tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce
1-1/2 Tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp sriracha or other hot chili sauce (more or less, to taste)
1 tsp agave nectar
1 tsp fresh lime juice
2 bundles (approximately 6 ounces) soba noodles, prepared according to package directions, rinsed under cold water and drained
2 Tbsp canola oil
1/2 lb fresh asparagus, woody parts of stems removed, tender part cut into 1-inch lengths
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 small red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch lengths
1/2 cup peanuts, dry-roasted and unsalted, roughly chopped
In a small bowl, combine sauce ingredients; adjust to taste with more agave or lime, and set aside (can be made days ahead of time, and stored in the refrigerator in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid).
Place the soba in a mixing bowl.
In a wok or skillet, heat the oil. Stir-fry asparagus, scallions, and bell pepper until vegetables are crisp-tender, 2-3 minutes. Add the vegetables to the soba. Pour in the sauce, and stir well to combine. Transfer to individual serving bowls, and top with chopped peanuts. Serve at room temperature or cold.