"Soba noodles became an important part of Japanese cuisine in the Edo period," Masahiko Tojo says, as he picks through a plastic bucket of buckwheat husks, removing pebbles, in preparation for grinding them into the silken buckwheat flour that will form the noodles.
He is standing at his stage-bench in the shopfront window of his [now closed] restaurant Jugemu Shimbashi Soba in Sydney.
Tojo learned his trade as apprentice to Yoshinori Shibazaki, Australia’s only true Soba Master and one of only 50 Soba Masters recognised in Japan. Shibazaki brought fresh soba noodles to Australia, inspired by the first-rate buckwheat he found growing just outside Launceston, Tasmania.
Buckwheat, a pretty, metre-high plant with heart-shaped leaves and clusters of white flowers, produces a tough multifaceted seed not unlike a diamond. Tasmania’s unique location, directly under the hole in the ozone layer, means unfiltered sunlight helps produce the finest buckwheat in the world.
And with a lifecycle of just 75 days, regular harvesting is possible. This is good news for Shibazaki and Tojo who make soba twice a day for their respective restaurants.
The history of soba noodles is a contentious one. According to archaeologists on the island of Hokkaido, buckwheat has grown in Japan since 10,000BC, but Japanese culinary historians concur that it has probably only been grown as a food crop since the mid 700s. Eaten as porridge from the mid 10th century and then as dumplings, a dish favoured by ninjas for their portability and fortifying properties.
Around 400 years ago, noodles became prolific in temples, served by priests to hungry pilgrims. Soba noodles' popularity grew rapidly during the relocation of Japan’s capital from Kyoto, to 'Edo' (modern-day Tokyo) between 1596 and 1614. The noodles fuelled labourers building the new city.
As such, they were stigmatised as poor man’s food and it was not until noodle makers began preparing 'sarashina', a snow-white variety made from the genus of the seed that the nobility became interested.
Highly nutritious, soba noodles are a good source of protein. The unique amino acid composition of buckwheat draws more usable protein from soba per gram than wheat, beef or chicken. They are rich in vitamin B1, vitamin P (rutin), which lowers blood pressure, potassium, magnesium, phosphate and iron. In Japan, soba are considered a cleansing and restorative food.
Back at his Sydney restaurant, Tojo has finished plucking pebbles and as his granite buckwheat grinder (one of two in Australia) whirs in the corner, talc-like flour shoots out of a nozzle into one bucket, while the leftover husks shoot out another. The husks are boiled to make tea. In Japan, they're used to stuff bedding and pillows.
Tojo pours the white flour into a huge kibachi (lacquered kneading bowl); he adds water, little by little, and uses his hands and the strength of his upper body to knead the dough. For him, this is the hardest step; he believes the quality of the noodles is all in the kneading. The movement and the warmth of Tojo’s hands activate the buckwheat’s delicate protein strands as he works the dough.
As a child, Tojo ate a lot of soba noodles, especially just before the New Year, a Japanese tradition known as toshikoshi, the long thin noodles are believed to contribute to a long and healthy life. Beginning his career making udon, a much more widely available noodle both in Japan and Australia, he switched to soba, for the romance.
"The taste, the smell, the theatrical way they are made and presented were all very appealing," says Tojo. "Making soba noodles requires much more finesse than other noodles, I was attracted to the artistry; it is spiritual work."
From his restaurant on the Gold Coast, Master Shibazaki tells me that chefs must study for a minimum of 10 gruelling years before graduating to the supreme post of Soba Master.
"There is a saying: 'four years for perfecting the dough, four years for rolling and another two years for cutting'," says Shibazaki. "But cutting should not be underestimated, I have been making soba every day for the past 33 years and I am still scared of cutting."
After 20 minutes of kneading, Tojo is ready to roll the dough. Flouring the workbench, he takes his long, thin noshi-bou (rolling pin) from the utensil rack off the wall. School kids peer through the window and intrigued commuters look on as they sit in afternoon traffic.
Rolling the mass, he applies, and then releases, pressure almost bouncing the rolling pin up and down, to keep the dough from splitting. Tojo’s noodles are 85 per cent buckwheat. The higher the ratio of buckwheat, the harder it is for them to stay together.
He continues rolling until it is only 1.5mm thick, stretching the dough into a wide sheet that looks like butcher’s paper, and folds it back onto itself, over and over to create a multi-layered stack of dough roughly 30 centimetres wide. Placing a wooden board on top, to act as a guide, he uses his soba-giri-bouchou (stainless steel soba knife), which looks like a cross between a meat cleaver and a hack saw, to shear perfect 1.5mm-wide noodles.
Types of soba
Kawari (different) flavours of soba have been served since the Edo period.
Only the genus of the buckwheat seed is used to make this white variety of soba
Originated in Shizuoka, a key green tea growing area. Ground green tea matcha is mixed with the buckwheat flour to make these vibrant green noodles.
Ground black sesame seeds are mixed with the buckwheat flour
Cold soba noodles served on a bamboo mat. Accompanied by a bowl of cold traditional dipping sauce, dashi, made from soy, mirin and sugar, and spring onions for sprinkling.
Soba noodles in a steaming broth. This dish originated on the icy north island of Hokkaido.
Resembling a giant gnocchi, soba gaki arrives at the table and is then broken into pieces and dipped into soba water or dressing.