With food trucks a-travelin’ and pop-up restaurants a-poppin’, a lot of people are talking about different dining options these days. As for me, I like the idea of kitchens cooking just about any time and any place. Preferably preparing anything interesting.
Just over a month ago, I enjoyed a terrific soba dinner that popped up at Nook, a place better known for biscuits. There, the soba was served warm, in broth with duck or oysters.
This past weekend, the soba was cold (intentionally!) when Sushi Kappo Tamura opened its doors to Chef Mutsuko Soma, who treated lucky customers to a pop-up lunch. Soma, former chef at Chez Shea, is passionate about soba, and even brought a stone grinder to show how much labor is involved in making flour from the buckwheat seeds. I was surprised to learn that it takes two hours of grinding to produce enough flour for ten portions of noodles.
What you might not know is that there’s so much buckwheat in our own backyard. Washington is the biggest grower of buckwheat in the States, with virtually all of it exported to Japan. But Soma gets some from farmer Darrel Otness, who himself would like to see more soba consumption on this side of the Pacific.
Using Otness’ seeds, Soma prepares a “nihachi” (two-eight) flour, consisting of twenty percent white flour and eighty percent buckwheat. She explained that it’s possible to do one hundred percent buckwheat, but she prefers the texture of her formula. In the other direction, cheap soba shops in Japan do a fifty/fifty formula to save money and add longevity to the life of the noodles, while dry noodles tend to be only thirty percent buckwheat and seventy percent white flour.
Grinding the buckwheat seeds is just one part of the noodle-making process. There’s no pasta machine in Soma’s noodle studio. Per tradition, she uses a rolling pin and a soba knife to cut the noodles with thin precision.
At the pop-up, Soma served zaru-soba, which is my favorite way to experience the buckwheat flavor and aroma. A pile of soba sits on the tray (the zaru). You place some negi (the real thing, far better but more expensive than green onion, which you typically find in its place in Seattle) and wasabi in your tsuyu (soy bonito sauce), stirring to mix. Next, grab some soba noodles with your chopsticks, dip them into the sauce, and then slurp them up. Nice, clean flavors—and a dish that’s so refreshing, especially in warm weather.
Lunch ($25) came with a first course of tsukemono (assorted pickles, in this case very delicately marinated) and nimono—a stew of braised beef shoulder, vegetables, and a tangle of shirataki noodles. After the soba noodles, there was a chance to add sobayu, the cooking broth of the soba, into the remaining tsuyu. This results in a warm treat that’s delicious, and which recaptures the nutrients and vitamins that the soba leaves behind in the water.
Lastly, there was dessert, soba-style: warabi mochi (more jelly-like than chewy) with soba jelly, kinako (roasted soy powder) vanilla ice cream, and kuromitsu—a bitter, molasses-like syrup that I love.
Soma sees a soba shop in Seattle’s future. Touting the taste and the health benefits of buckwheat noodles, she hopes to open her own restaurant by the end of the year. Seattle’s got ramen and recently its first dedicated udon shop, so it’s exciting to see that soba is on the horizon.
Grinding the buckwheat (photo courtesy of Binah Yeung)
Kneading the dough (photo courtesy of Binah Yeung)
Rolling the dough (photo courtesy of Binah Yeung)
Cutting the noodles (photo courtesy of Binah Yeung)
The soba course, at last
Mutsuko Soma shows off her soba noodles