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Soba Noodles – Love at first bite

Image credit: justhungry.com
Ever since I first came across Soba Noodles last year at Dahlia in Chennai, it has become my favorite rendition of carbohydrates. I remember chomping down the chewy light brown noodles in between slurps of Miso and bites of Prawn Tempura. The noodles had a subtle nutty flavor and held their own in front of all that umami and crunchy shellfish. It was love at first bite. 
Soba is made (mostly) from Buckwheat flour. Wheat flour is also added sometimes, to stabilize the dough with gluten during the rolling process. Sadly, I am yet to come across 100% Buckwheat Soba or Juwari Soba at Asian stores in India.
The Buckwheat flour gives Soba its characteristic milk-chocolate brown color and an earthy, nutty flavor. These noodles don't give in easily when you chew, whilst not being hefty like Udon. Gluten free and with almost half as much calories as regular noodles, Soba comforts me on days when I need a savory carb-hit.
I have tried various brands of Soba available in India, including a locally made Red Dragon. Sadly, this turned out to be the worst of the lot.  The cooked noodles broke up during boiling and lacked that quintessential Soba tautness.  
Ottogi Dried Soba
 
Let down by this locally made dried Soba







My go-to brand is the Korean Ottogi which I pick up from Osaka or Seoul Store in Chennai. Last I checked these were also available at Yamato-ya and A-Mart, in Delhi. Cooked a little beyond al-dente, these strands of noodles hold their form beautifully, giving that wonderful smooth and chewy mouth feel. 

Soba experts agree that the best Soba is freshly made, so I had to give it a shot at home. Some asking around and I figured out Buckwheat flour is actually kuttu ka aata, used to make chapatis during the Navratri fasts. I sourced half a kilo of this sattu-like flour and divided it into batches. Some Youtubing and I realized making fresh Soba is no easy feat, requiring years of practice and precision. Watching freshly cut strands of Soba being fished out from boiling vats was reason enough to add a Soba Bar to my bucket list.

Back to my experiment. I tried various Wheat flour - Buckwheat flour combinations. I also experimented with eggs as binding agent. This kuttu ka aata wasn't very finely ground, certainly not the 00 stuff I presume good Soba is made with. The Soba dough would nonchalantly fall off as I tried to flatten it out. Juwari Soba was simply out of the question. Throwing in an egg did help the dough hold it's shape, but added an overpowering eggy flavor. The best bet seemed to be a 70:30 ratio of Buckwheat flour to Wheat flour, kneaded with water.

I used a rolling pin to spread out the Soba pastry dough and cut it into long juliennes, a pasta maker would have come really handy here. I threw in the freshly cut noodle strands into water on a rolling boil and waited. I watched with despair as my noodles plumped up unexpectedly to Tagliatelle proportions. I fished them out after 10 minutes. The outside was overdone - almost mushy while the centre was still floury dough. After a couple of hits and misses, I managed to finely slice my roti-thin pastry dough. 5 minutes of boil and they turned out pretty good.

At least good enough under the circumstances. The Soba was still pretty thick and the texture rather gritty, but the firm bite and nutty aroma shone through. All it needed was a drizzle of sesame seed oil, soy sauce and a garnish of finely chopped spring onions. Slurp!

Freshly made Cold Soba - tastes better than it looks
Even though making Soba from scratch was fun, it's way too much hard work when I'm craving some. I typically pick up a pack of Ottogi and whip up some Cold Soba. Perfect for the hot summer, it keeps well in the fridge too. Here's my  Cold Soba recipe, including a neat pro-trick.

1. Fill a saucepan with enough water to fully immerse the noodles and bring it to boil. Lower in your Soba carefully. If your vessel isn't large enough to swallow the noodles whole, make sure you get the entire length of the noodles immersed after the boiling water softens up one end.

2. Wait and watch. Soba can take anywhere between 5-7 minutes to reach al-dente depending upon the brand. Use a pair of chopsticks or tongs to pull out noodles in between and check for doneness. Let your mouth be the judge. Overcooking Soba ruins the experience, so pay attention. In the meantime prep another pan/vessel with an ice-water mix.

3. Once your Soba is done. Drain it out through a sieve. Now run the sieve with tap water in your kitchen sink, gently rubbing the noodles against each other. You want to remove as much starch as you can, which will make the soba sticky when it is chilled.

4. Finally dump your soba into the ice-water bath and let it chill till you are ready to munch.

5. Soba revels in minimalistic dressing. The unique texture and flavour of noodles should shine through without being buried under layers of assortment. Traditionally Cold Soba is garnished with spring onions, drizzled with some dark Sesame seed oil (Not our Teel ka Tel, Japanese Sesame seed oil is an entirely different beast) and dunked into a dipping sauce (Mentsuyu) before being slurped up. Mentsuyu is a classic Japanese dipping sauce concocted from Sake (Japanese rice wine), Mirin (Japanese cooking wine), Bonito chips (dried fish flakes) and soy sauce. If you have the time and if your pantry is up for it, go ahead and brew some afresh. Or, you could just get a packaged bottle like I did.


Soba Dipping Sauce (Ottogi)

6. While the the dipping sauce is a great condiment, the whole dipping business can get messy at times. I devised a way to get all that Umami on your Soba without the mess.

7. The key here is to create an emulsion that will stick to the smooth surface of the noodles, like you would do for a salad with Vinaigrette. The emulsion, an unstable mixture of hydrophobic fat (Sesame seed oil) and hydrophilic dipping sauce will bind onto the Soba. Start with a take a bit of Mentsuyu in a bowl and slowly drip in the Sesame seed oil, all the while whisking vigorously. As with any emulsion, the key is to incorporate the oil slowly, almost drop by drop so that it doesn't clump together and form a blob of oil which will swim on top of the hydrophilic liquid's surface. You may choose to add a drop of Wasabi paste at this point if you like sinus kicks like I do. Once you are satisfied with the consistency and taste, just dollop it over your Soba and green onions. 

8. That's it! Easy Peezy. The best part is, if you have Soba chilling in your fridge already, this entire thing just takes minutes.

Cold Soba with fried egg on top - a complete meal
Soba works pretty well with Miso soup as well. I am reminiscing the Crispy Tofu and Soba in Miso that nourished me during the winter gone-by. That recipe will have to wait for another day.

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