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Food

Sake Soba

Okasan and her special soba dough

One weekend in February, I was with nineteen fellow sake nomi on a big bus to Niigata, about 5 hours away from Tokyo, for a two day trip filled with, well, …sake. I will write up what we were doing in Niigata later, but soba noodle making at Yukitaro-no-sato was scheduled for first thing in the morning on the second day. It was the first thing in the morning, before everyone was too drunk from the so-called Niigata sake tasting on the bus.

We left Takada in Joetsu at 10:00 am to drive half an hour deep into the snow country almost to the Niigata border with Nagano, where you see people occasionally on top of the roof shoveling off the snow, but spot no one on the street under the gray sky. Yukiaro-no-sato is an old elementary school that was closed down a while ago and converted into a agri-tourism promotion center in the area. We were greeted by four soba specialists who are also part-time doburoku brew masters among many other things. These soba sensei (we called them with proper respect) were in their fifties to sixties and welcomed us with big smiles but all had hands that showed many years of hard work. The retired school building still had remnants from the prime of its life, such as a blackboard, big long fluorescent lights hanging from the wooden ceiling, and many framed awards the school won hanging on the wall–some of which were from 1971.

The group broke up into five clusters and each group sat on a blue tarp over the tatami by a big wooden bowl that was too big to get my arms around. By the bowl, there was soba or buckwheat flour and yamaimo with a grater waiting for us to get started. “First, grate yamaimo.” We each took turns struggling with sticky, slimy grated yamaimo paste. “Then, dump soba flour” said the soba sensei nearest to me. From there, we all took a long journey of mixing and kneading that lasted about 30 min. When you have this many people, it seems there’s always someone who cannot follow instructions. Somewhere along the line, when everyone was quietly grappling with the dough, one guy, I will not mention who, said, “Let’s put sake in this soba dough”. “Not too much!” The lead instructor, Okasan, warned him when the guys dumped in a third of a bottle of sake. At first, soba dough with sake seemed really watery and we all had unspoken doubts about this sake and soba combination. I dreaded the thought of wasting perfectly good ingredients. Eventually, it had the same smooth texture just like other dough with just grated yamaimo. Another long repeated session of kneading, spreading the dough so thin and into a square with a rolling pin about the size of my arm, then somehow turning it around, and thus we continued. Finally, they brought in a special chopper to cut the folded soba sheet everyone had worked on. Then, voila! We had something very close to the noodle you see at a restaurant, only with good stuff.

When it was the time to boil the heavy gray pasta, these arrogant Tokyo sake nomi or true sake devotees, whichever way you see them, asked these very nice sensei to boil the soba with sake in it separate from the regular batch. “Oh, it’s not going to make any difference. Put everything in one big pot. Otherwise, it’s too much work!”, said someone from the group, but our hosts very nicely accommodated this request.

Surprisingly, it did make a difference when we compared boiled soba with sake and soba without sake: the one with sake had more texture, yet a softer feel to it, and tasted better. We were not sure if it was sake or Okasan’s magic touch that did it. But when you have this many sake enthusiasts, there’s always a new recipe, right? Next time I make soba noodles, I will try it with sake. Maybe, my next one will finally be a success, unlike those disastrous incidents on New Year’s eve that ended with short toshikoshi-soba noodles or dinner meant to impress in-laws…

I can’t forget to mention their doburokuHohoemisou Doburoku we tried. As you may know, there are only limited areas in Japan with doburoku production permits. The name has a couple of implications to me: made by amateurs, rough and lively sake not at all filtered, and sour rice porridge! To me, the word even has the same feel as bathtub gin did in the Prohibition Era. Contrary to my associations with all these things, being the first area approved by the government, they use proper sake yeast purchased through a proper channel, I think they said #7, and locally grown Gohyakumangoku rice. So, their doburoku is very professional, but still has that nice sour young special feel to it.

Pictures from Yukitaro-no-sato soba lunch.

If you are curious about the step by step soba making process, Tsukiji Soba Academy has nice pictures (it took a while to download, though).

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