“Oh, no, no, no,” says Sonoko Sakai as she jets across the test kitchen at the WSU Mount Vernon Research Station to school a student on the proper technique of draining a freshly cooked hand-cut soba noodle.
“Don’t stir it. You have to pat it like this,” she says as she firmly whacks the bottom of the strainer.
Sakai, a former film industry executive, changed course dramatically a few years ago and left LA for Japan to learn the art of making soba, a traditional Japanese noodle made primarily of buckwheat.
She found her way to soba master Takashi Hosokawa and now travels the country sharing her soba expertise.
One afternoon last fall she led a class of 12 students and a number of onlookers in a soba-making clinic during a bread and grain conference at the research center.
Soba can be made solely with buckwheat flour and water, says Sakai. But it’s difficult to form the dough, especially if you’re a novice. So on this day she cheats the recipe with a little all-purpose flour. It’s still a true soba noodle, she says. But the addition of wheat flour helps the dough bind together more easily. It also affects the throat feel, creating a slippery sensation called nodogoshi.
Wheat flour or no, soba is a deliciously sort of nutty-tasting noodle with just a bit of chew. And that texture and flavor is thanks to the primary ingredient—buckwheat. It’s a pseudo-cereal, according to WSU’s Kevin Murphy, who recently was part of a study examining the nutritional composition of buckwheat groats and husks.
Buckwheat is a bee-pollinated broadleaf plant that produces small triangular seeds that look like grains. The crop is believed to have originated in the Himalayas and is cultivated around the world, primarily in Eastern Europe and Asia, but also in France, Italy, Canada, and the United States. In their study, the WSU team determined there is a growing interest in buckwheat in North America because of the health benefits: It’s nutritious, high in dietary fiber and protein. It is also rich in minerals like manganese, potassium, copper, and zinc.
Again, note Murphy and his co-authors, the crop has potential for greater consumer interest, but hasn’t been studied much.
Despite its name, the plant has little to do with wheat, says Darrel Otness, who contracts with Columbia Basin farmers to grow buckwheat for sale to Japan. The plant is more related to rhubarb. But the farmers like it because they can plant and harvest it with their grain equipment.
Washington state is the country’s largest producer of buckwheat for export to Japan, says Otness. It is a popular crop with the farmers he works with because it’s a second crop, one they can plant in mid-summer after they harvest their primary crop of wheat or timothy hay. “They can get a second paycheck from that same piece of ground,” he says.
The better Japanese mills won’t use buckwheat that has been stored longer than a year. And it’s recommended that the flour be used within 30 days of milling.
Farmers like Glenn Leland ’74 of Mattawa plant their buckwheat seed in July and harvest it in October. “I put it in for the first time in 1984,” says Leland. “It was kind of an experiment. But there was a learning curve.” That first year, a late planting and some other issues resulted in low yield. Using the lessons of ’84, Leland tried the crop again the following year with greater success and has been growing it ever since. “Farmers never give up, you know,” he says.
In the Columbia Basin buckwheat is grown under irrigation, but over the rest of the world it’s typically a dryland crop. It’s fairly easy to grow, but at a ton per acre, the yields are far lower than they would be for corn or wheat, says Leland.
The fields in bloom with white flowers are pretty, but they have quite a smell. It’s not sweet so much as off. Kind of “kennel,” says the farmer. But that scent may help it attract the bees it needs to pollinate. In fact, the bees need the buckwheat, too. Since it has a long flowering period and it blooms through September, it gives the bees a necessary food source for storing up honey for the winter. Beekeepers are delighted to park their bees near Leland’s fields.
While not widely popular in North America, buckwheat features in cuisines world-wide. Beyond the soba noodle, there’s the French buckwheat galette, the Italian pizzoccheri, and the classic Russian buckwheat blini (a famous vehicle for caviar). Throughout Eastern Europe it factors into diets as kasha. In China and the mountains of Tibet, where buckwheat is believed to have originated, it’s eaten as a porridge. There’s also dried buckwheat noodles, which may be the only soba most Americans have ever tasted. “Oh they’re horrible,” says Sakai, who admits that before she started studying soba she resorted to those herself.
Sakai has tried buckwheat milled in the States for her soba, but found it somewhat “sandy.” “It’s milled for pancakes, right? Not soba quality,” she says. On a recent trip from Japan, Sakai talked her sister into carrying a large sack of freshly milled buckwheat flour in her suitcase. The irony is that this buckwheat could have been grown in Washington, says Sakai. “Now I’m bringing it back here to make noodles.”
Back in Mount Vernon, Sakai’s students use their fingers to evenly distribute water into their carefully measured mixture of wheat and buckwheat flour in large wide metal bowls. Sakai reaches in to test the hydration and urges a couple students to add a little more water.
Then they knead the dough and shape and roll it into a smooth ball with a pointed end. They flatten it into a disk, roll it out into very large squares, and then sprinkle flour, fold it, and fold it again. Then using a board as a guide and a fierce-looking soba knife, Sakai shows them how to cut the thin noodles.
A little more than a minute in boiling water and then a quick bath in a dashi broth and the students are happily slurping their handiwork.
Know your buckwheat
Groats: The groat, or whole kernel, includes the germ, the bran,
and the endosperm. The hull has been removed.
Kasha: A porridge made of buckwheat that has been dehulled and roasted. (Eastern Europe)
Soba: Long thin noodles made from finely milled buckwheat flour and water. (Japan)
Pizzoccheri: A short square pasta made primarily from buckwheat flour and served with cheese, greens like chard, bread crumbs, and butter. (Northern Italy)
Galette: A savory buckwheat crepe from northern France.
Blini: Small buckwheat pancakes, traditional vehicles
for crème fraîche and caviar. (Russia)