It’s a sunny but notably brisk winter morning in the western suburb of Shin-Koenji, and I find myself browsing in Seven Eleven, taking shelter from the wind. I’m looking at the pre-made food section and getting really excited because today I have the chance to cook soba noodles from scratch in a healthy soba making class!
The soba-sensei Asako Nonaka herself suddenly pops out from the drinks aisle greeting me with the warmest smile, and immediately I know I am in good hands. She tells me that after spending a few years in New York, she wanted to introduce healthy Japanese food to local people there, and has since returned to Tokyo and continues doing cooking classes in her home studio. In no time at all, Asako is asking me where I’m from and what Japanese foods I like, and gives advice about how I best tackle eating natto (fermented soybeans, while extremely healthy, is not for everyone). She kindly suggests adding kimchi and an egg to manage the texture and flavor.
On that note, we head downstairs to the supermarket to check out some condiments while we wait for other members of the group to arrive. Asako recommends using soy sauce that is made from fewer ingredients, and that it is better make your own dashi stock from kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes).
My partner in soba-making crime Marvin makes his grand entrance and so we head off to Asako’s soba making studio, which is an extension inside her private residence. We wander down through some quiet residential streets and soon reach Asako’s beautiful home. Just two houses over, Asako also used to hold soba making classes in her parents’ place.
We are welcomed inside with tea while the sunshine beams through the big window, where you can see the kitchen looking onto the quaint street. A warm and pleasant space, we head inside and I feel right at home as Asako gets to explaining the many health benefits of soba.
A noodle made from bucket wheat, soba is gluten-free and high in B1 and B2 vitamins. I learn that it also contains Rutin, which prevents high blood pressure. The condiments to be eaten with our soba are called yakumi, usually vegetables, fruit or seafood used to add flavor and health benefits to a dish. The kanji character reading for the word yakumi combines medicine and flavor, so that checks out, health benefits meet flavor. Asako tells us that scallions enhance the fatigue recovery properties of vitamin B1, while wasabi enhances the mucous membrane growth of B2. Moreover, seaweed and sesame both contain high levels of antioxidants. Who knew?
So we get cracking on making the soba, firstly donning some cute traditional aprons, and begin weighing and mixing the dough. A combination of mostly buckwheat flour and some regular flour are sifted into some great lacquerware bowls. The flour looks kind of speckled grey with a green tinge, showing its freshness, and the scent of buckwheat is abundant when water is added. Pouring the water in at several intervals, it’s a fun yet meditative routine mixing the dough with our fingertips. Kneading the dough and then rolling it out is hard work, I find it repetitious and relaxing. Asako is helping along the way with specific techniques of how to grip the rolling pin, and where I should stop rolling the dough to ensure evenness in my soba babies!
Part way through the class, Asako’s 8-year-old son and his friend come home from school, and you can definitely feel the family neighborhood vibes. After a shy quick hello, Marvin and I get back to production, as the soba dough can easily dry out so we have to work quickly.
Cutting the soba noodles requires more precision that I’d have initially thought. Holding the guide board correctly, and then pushing and tilting the huge knife to get the right width of noodle is really tough. I am concentrating so hard but also laughing the whole time! It’s hard work but it is totally worth it because soon we come to lunch time…
The soba are boiled for roughly a minute, depending on the thickness of the noodles, next put into iced water immediately and then served.
We sit down to a beautifully set out meal with a side of sake and a variety of colorful yakumi. The freshness of the soba is simply delicious, especially enhanced with wasabi (bright green horseradish), negi (scallions) and dipped in tsuyu (dipping sauce). I am laughing at myself because my tentative soba slurping skills are not nearly up to scratch, but give it a go anyway.
Asako explains that after eating soba we use the water that it was boiled in, called sobayu, and mix it with the tsuyu as a drink to finish off.
I feel like I have spent the morning with good friends, and after having spent the whole lesson laughing I leave the class I feel elated. Asako is so warm and friendly, answering any questions along the way while encouraging us as we went. I leave feeling really satisfied, not only that I accomplished something with my own hands, but that I then got to eat it too! I also learned a lot in such a beautiful and friendly environment. I’d say it was definitely a worthwhile experience on a wintery day in Tokyo.
Want to make your own soba noodles in Tokyo? Book our Handmade Soba Noodles Cooking Class today!