New-harvest rice, known as shinmai, is the culinary star of autumn in Japan. But there’s another grain that is just as eagerly anticipated at this time of year in many parts of the country: shinsoba, new-harvest buckwheat.
There are two yearly crops of buckwheat in Japan — in summer and fall — but shinsoba only refers to the latter. Aficionados insist that this buckwheat has a delicate, nutty flavor and an aroma that is irresistible.
Although soba originated on the Asian continent, it has been part of the Japanese diet since prehistoric times. Written mentions of buckwheat from the seventh and eighth centuries indicate that it was hulled and steamed as a grain for consumption rather than ground into a flour, and that it was grown as an alternative to rice (along with wheat) during drought periods. The primary soba-producing regions in Japan today — such as mountainous Nagano Prefecture and cold Hokkaido — are the areas where rice was not easy to grow prior to the development of modern hybrids. (Nearly 90 percent of Japan’s soba is imported, with most coming from China, but shinsoba is usually of domestic origin since it has to be fresh.)
The custom of grinding buckwheat into flour only became widespread during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) when stone-grinding mills were introduced from China. However, this flour was usually eaten as a kind of cooked dough called sobagaki, which is similar to soft mochi (pounded rice dough) and is eaten in soup or oshiruko (stewed sweet beans with mochi).
The first written mention of soba was in relation to something called sobagiri (“cut soba”), which resemble noodles as we know them today but were steamed rather than boiled. This was mentioned in documents written around 1570 from the Kiso region, which encompasses part of current day Nagano and Gifu prefectures — areas that are still famous for their soba noodles.
One reason why soba noodles had not become popular before that time may be because it’s very difficult to make a dough formed with 100-percent soba that’s cohesive enough to cut into thin strips. Despite its English translation, “buckwheat,” soba is neither a wheat nor does it have the gluten that’s present in wheat. Noodles made from 100-percent soba flour do exist (called jūwari or towari soba), but require a high skill level to make. Most soba noodles that you can buy are made with added tsunagi (binder), which is usually wheat flour.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), soba became very popular, especially in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The type of soba noodle favored by Edo residents was called ni-hachi soba, made with two parts wheat flour and eight parts soba flour. It was thinner, smoother and more slippery than the 100-percent soba flour noodles that came before it, and much easier to make — it’s still the most popular type of soba noodle.
It was also during this period that soba came to be regarded as a health food. Rich in vitamin B-1, it was used as a cure for beriberi, which was so common in white rice-loving Edo that it was called “Edo disease.”
There has been a resurgence of interest in soba in the last decade or so, especially in making teuchi (handmade) noodles. There are teuchi classes and clubs all around the country, and you can even find ones that teach in English, too. It takes some time to master the skills for making thin, slippery yet toothsome noodles, but enthusiasts have a lot of fun in the process.
Sobagaki is much easier to make than noodles, and it’s a good way to savor the delicate flavor of shinsoba. You can buy shinsoba flour from specialty shops online, in department store food halls and at some supermarkets. Be sure to store shinsoba flour in the refrigerator or freezer, well sealed, to retain its freshness.
Recipe: Fresh ‘sobagaki’
- 100 grams soba flour, preferably stone ground shinsoba flour
- 100 ml boiling water (for the hot water method) or 250 ml cold water (pan-cooked method)
- shoyu for dipping, to taste
- wasabi or chopped green onions
A whisk, a pestle (surikogi) and a large bowl or a saucepan with sloping sides
There are two methods: Using hot water retains the flavors of the buckwheat better, but the cold-water method is easier.
When cooking with hot water, put the flour in a large bowl and stir in the boiling water with a whisk until there are no lumps and the mixture stiffens. Switch the dough to the pestle. Pound and mix vigorously until it is shiny and sticky.
When cooking with cold water, put the flour in a pan and gradually add the cold water while mixing with the whisk until there are no lumps. Heat the pan over medium heat and keep stirring until the mixture starts to bubble. Switch the dough to the pestle and pound and mix vigorously until the dough is shiny, sticky and thick, but still light enough to scoop up with a spoon.
Transfer the dough to small individual bowls. Dip morsels of the sobagaki in shoyu, wasabi and chopped green onions.