Noodles are an iconic part of Japanese cuisine and culture. Ramen, with its bold, loud flavours is like a crowded street corner in Tokyo’s Shinjuku, full of colour and noise and bright light; soba is more like the quiet and subtle beauty of a Zen monastery. The Depanneur is honoured to invite Ted Iizuka, Canada’s only Soba Master, to share an intimate and in-depth exploration of the making and enjoying of this traditional Japanese delicacy.
Soba was originally a working person’s food — simple, humble and nourishing — made to be enjoyed with hearty slurping. Soba in Japanese refers not only to buckwheat but also the noodle made from it. Buckwheat is not, in fact, a form of wheat or even a grain (it is technically a seed). There is no gluten present in buckwheat, making it ideal for those on gluten-free diets, but that presents unique challenges in the kitchen.
Without gluten’s binding quality, which makes wheat flour elastic, buckwheat flour falls apart easily and requires a skilled touch. A soba chef in Japan has to apprentice for over 5 years to learn the requisite skills, and three of those are spent just learning how to make the dough. The most common soba today is called Ni Hachi, (“two-eight” or 20% wheat flour and 80% buckwheat flour); the addition of wheat makes the dough easier to work and gives a smoother texture that is popular.
In Japan, soba is a good nutritional addition to a diet reliant on white rice and wheat flour. Thiamine, missing from white rice, is present in soba; eating thiamine (vitamin B1) can help prevent the disease beriberi. Soba contains all eight essential amino acids, including lysine, which is lacking in wheat flour.
The preparation of soba takes place in three stages. First is Kibachi, where the buckwheat flour is mixed in a large, distinctive, red lacquer bowl. The quantity of water to flour and the handling are critical in the mixing. Then comes Noshi, where the dough is rolled into a large square using a cylindrical rolling pin. Great hand skill is required here, and in Japan, some of the rolling pins are reputed to have magical powers. Finally, the rolled dough is carefully folded into layers and cut into noodles about 1.3-millimetre square. An impressive, specialized knife, made with the ancient skills of the swordsmith, is used for the cutting.
Soba noodles have a subtle nutty flavour, and the purest way to eat them and enjoy their flavour is called zaru soba —the noodles served chilled on a bamboo wicker plate with a simple topping and a dipping sauce, shiru, made from bonito flakes and soy sauce.
Ted will prepare and serve zaru soba with all hand-prepared, organic ingredients. He personally selects the buckwheat in the fields of Northern Manitoba and mills it at home between massive stones. He shaves flakes from a block of dried bonito from Japan to make the shiru. The soba noodles will be topped with a homemade oboro tofu, unfamiliar to most of us in North America. It has a custard-like texture and a subtle flavour that you won’t find in commercial tofu. Ted extracts the milk from organic soybeans, which is gently cooked to make the finished tofu.
Join us for this unique and rare opportunity to share in the preparation and eating of a traditional Japanese meal with a true master craftsman.
Iizuka Tetsuya is the formal name of Ted Iizuka, Canada’s only Soba Master. We call him Ted-san; in Japanese the suffix -san is a mark of both respect and affection. Ted was a successful shipping executive, posted in offices throughout the world, including Toronto. When he was ordered back to headquarters in Tokyo, he realized that the freedom of life in Canada would allow him to pursue his heart’s passions: soba-making and fishing. So, he threw off suit and tie, put on his chef’s apron and stayed in Toronto. We are lucky to have his presence here, not for his introducing us to particular disciplines and pleasures of Japanese food, but also for his work with the farmers of Northern Manitoba to bring the world’s highest quality buckwheat to the world. Soba Canada
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