I have a running list of reasons why more people outside of Japan should know about Izumo. On Sunday, soba noodles became the latest of those reasons.
A teacher from my smaller school invited me to a soba making class at a local elementary school on Sunday. The class was run by six older men who have each been making soba for about ten years. They even belong to an association of soba makers that includes professional chefs and people who make soba as a hobby.
One of the first things I heard about Izumo before I came here was that it was famous for soba noodles. Only now, though, do I understand what makes Izumo soba special. From my understanding, in Japan, soba is often divided into two categories; Shinshu soba, which is popular in eastern Japan, and Izumo soba, which is popular in western Japan. Think about that. If soba is divided into two general categories, Izumo soba is one of the main categories. In other words, Izumo soba isn’t just famous, it helps to define soba in western Japan.
If you’re like me, and you’ve always assumed that soba was just soba, you have it wrong. There are a few distinct differences between the two main types. The main difference between Shinshu soba and Izumo soba is the color of the noodles. Shunshu soba makes flour with husked grains. Izumo soba uses the whole grains. This causes Shinshu soba to be lighter in color while Izumo soba is darker. This seems to be a pretty well-known fact in Japan. At the class today, someone asked me if this was my first time eating soba. I explained that no, it wasn’t, and the last time I ate soba in Japan was in Nagano Prefecture. The person who asked me the question immediately said, “Oh! Shinshu noodles are different. They’re white.”
Another difference between Shinshu and Izumo soba is how they’re often served. In Izumo, it’s common to find soba served in three-tiered dished. You add toppings and sauce to the first tier, eat it, and then pour the leftover sauce onto the tier of soba below the first one, adding more toppings and sauce as needed. Shinshu soba is commonly served in three separate dishes.
At the class today, including me and my coworker, there were a few other adults and a group of about fifteen elementary school students learning the noodle making process. Overall, the process is simple. But it takes a lot of practice to develop a sense of how to really do it well.
You start with about one kilogram of flour and about 500 ml of water. After sifting the flour, you add the water to it a little at a time, mixing the flour with your fingers as you go (like “cat’s hands” as our teachers explained). Eventually, you knead the soba dough (so that the noodles are springy), and roll the dough into a square shape. The whole process of mixing the soba was so much fun to try and to watch because the more water you add to the flour, the more you can smell the soba. It smells a bit like rich bread dough.
When rolling out the soba, an even shape and thickness is key. Luckily, the soba teachers kept an eye on all of us in the class to make sure we were learning how to do it right. These men have been making soba for so long, that they know on sight if the flour needs more water and when it’s okay to stop kneading the dough. They can also tell how thick soba dough is when rolled out just by touching it.
When the dough has bee rolled out more than several times, it’s folded over itself carefully, and then the noodle cutting begins.
To cut soba noodles, you use this giant knife that’s shaped like the State of Oklahoma with an extra panhandle. You place a small wooden slab on top of the dough. With one hand on the knife and one hand on the wood slab, you inch the slab back with the knife, and slice noodles a bit at a time. You keep going like this until all the dough is cut. Ideally, you don’t want to slice the noodles thicker than the height of a 1 yen coin (about 1 mm). This is much easier said than done, but after a while, you can get a sense of how much to push the wood slab back before it’s okay to cut the noodles. At one point, when I was trying this, I asked one of the teachers if a slice I was about to make was too thick. He said that the person cutting the soba is the best person to know the answer to that question.
Once all the soba was cut, the teachers cooked the noodles we had all just made and we got to eat bowls of our soba then and there. There is nothing like fresh soba! And being able to think to yourself, “I helped make this,” while eating just makes everything that much better.
After finishing our soba, we drank the water it had been cooked in! I’ve heard of soba mixed with tea before, but I had no idea you could just drink the water the noodles were cooked in. Someone explained to me that soba water is just like a soup broth, and it especially tastes good if you add some of the leftover sauce to it. I actually liked it quite a bit. It was almost like drinking the smell of mixing the soba flour with water.
When I was drinking the soba water, I couldn’t help but remember a phrase I learned in Japanese not long after I came to Izumo; mottai nai. It basically means, “waste not.” It’s what parents or teachers tell young kids when the kids won’t finish their food. It’s the reason you recycle things. It’s why you eat every grain of rice in a bowl. It’s what you regretfully say when you’ve accidentally wasted your whole day or have to throw out a whole container of leftovers because they’ve gone bad in the fridge. It’s why you try not to accumulate meaningless things. It’s one of those sayings that people use so often, that it’s ingrained into their actions and character. At my schools, when there are leftover cartons of milk from lunch, my coworkers sometimes encourage me to take some of them home because mottai nai. Recently, I’ve convinced myself to save money by turning down little things like drinks from a vending machine because mottai nai. Every resource is important and the product of someone’s hard work; so out of respect for that hard work, mottai nai.
In the case of soba water, I thought mottai nai was a great spark of innovation. I would never think to drink water used to cook noodles like soup, but it’s being done. In a way, Izumo soba is an epitome of mottai nai. Izumo soba is served in three tiers, so you don’t waste sauce or toppings. It uses grain, husk, and all in making its flour. After making the soba, you can drink the water. Without ever expecting to learn something other than how to make soba, I also learned an example of why mottai nai is important and inspiring.
The next time you eat soba, see if you can tell what kind it is. So many regions have their own take on the dish, but if you can find it, Izumo soba is definitely worth experiencing.