The Ultimate Noodle Experience: Making Soba From Scratch

Despite my many years of noodle obsession, I had never – until a couple weeks ago – tried my hand at actually making my own noodles from scratch. I don’t mean just frying up some noodles in a wok; I mean actually mixing a dough, rolling it out and cutting it into strands of noodles. I’ve seen it done many times in markets, restaurants and on television, have always been interested in the process, and briefly entertained the idea of making David Chang’s ramen recipe from the first issue of Lucky Peach. Alas, without any guidance or instruction, the task always proved too daunting to try on my own. So when my hobby-forward friend Laura (also my companion for last year’s woodworking class) proposed checking out a soba noodle making class (after being inspired by the soba noodles in sesame sauce that I brought to her bbq!) with our friends Ananda and Julia, I was all in.

Soba is a traditional Japanese noodle made from buckwheat flour that’s lauded not only for its delicate flavour but also its health benefits. It’s extremely popular across Japan and can be found in a wide range of eateries, from tiny train station noodle stands, to mid-level tourist spots to expensive restaurants specializing exclusively in soba. Soba quality can vary greatly though, and the base factor in that is whether the soba is fresh and handmade or dried and machine-made. It’s kind of like the difference between fresh and dried pasta – the fresh stuff tastes way better. Interestingly, however, only a tiny fraction of soba purveyors in Japan actually make fresh soba by hand. This is because the fresh stuff is quite labour intensive and requires a significant amount of skill and expertise – during the Edo period, aspiring soba masters apprenticed for a total of 5 years and 3 months!

Fresh soba contains approximately 80% buckwheat flour – this high buckwheat content is what gives the fresh noodles their prized flavour but it’s also what makes them tricky to produce. Buckwheat flour lacks gluten, the protein that’s responsible for giving dough its elasticity (that’s why those gluten-free cookies and cakes are always kinda crumbly). So when buckwheat flour is mixed with water, the resulting dough is quite delicate and prone to breaking. Machines just can’t make noodles from that kind of inelastic dough, so they cheat by using only about 40% buckwheat flour mixed with regular wheat flour. The noodles are then typically dried and packaged, to be consumed later. The large majority of soba in Japan and abroad is of this dried variety. And while it obviously has the appeal of convenience and efficiency, it comes at the cost of that delicate buckwheat taste. For the soba connoisseurs then, real soba is only the fresh stuff.

Enter Ted, our noodle-making host for the afternoon and the only person to his knowledge IN CANADA making fresh soba by hand. Ted hails from the Asakusa district of Tokyo, one of the city’s few neighbourhoods where you can see and feel traditional elements of the foregone Edo period. After spending many years as the boss of a company in Japan, which included a brief stint in Toronto, Ted gave up the corporate world in favour of the noodle world (my hero!). Having always been a big soba fan, he went to school in Japan to learn the craft of soba making. Then, lucky for us, he brought his skills back to Toronto and through his company, Soba Canada, has been spreading the soba love here for over 15 years. He hosts a weekly event called Soba Tuesdays where he takes over Ichiriki Japanese restaurant at Yonge and Bloor for a night and, instead of the restaurant’s regular sushi menu, he offers a special soba menu consisting exclusively of fresh noodles that he’s personally made from scratch. In addition, he occasionally hosts soba-making classes in his basement workshop.

The zaru soba (i.e. chilled soba on bamboo sieve with dipping sauce) that I enjoyed at Soba Tuesday about a year ago, served with sides of fresh tofu, crab legs and salmon roe

Ted is the definition of an artisanal food maker, without any of the pretension, puffed-up marketing or overpricing ($10 for an artisanal chocolate bar anyone?) that usually goes along with the Brooklyn-inspired food trend that’s taken over North America these days. You want farm-to-table? He’ll literally give you seed-to-table. For Ted, the single most important factor in making delicious soba is the quality of the flour – even a soba master’s noodles wouldn’t taste good if using low quality stuff. Unsatisfied with the quality of buckwheat flour that’s available in Canada, Ted makes his own, and is involved in every single step of its production. He uses parent seeds from Japan which are then planted on a farm in Manitoba, the “buckwheat capital of Canada” (interestingly, Canada doesn’t consume much buckwheat itself and most of Manitoba’s production is exported to Japan; Japan on the other hand is a top buckwheat consumer but doesn’t produce much of the crop itself due to space). When the crop is harvested, he takes the buckwheat seeds back to his home in Mississauga and grinds them into a flour himself, using a flour mill that he has in his basement workshop. He packages and sells some of the flour for retail. But when preparing a fresh batch of noodles to serve, he’ll actually grind the flour fresh that morning.

The buckwheat

The mill

In addition to the level of care that’s put into producing the buckwheat flour, the process of actually making the noodles is a whole craft in itself. As I mentioned before, aspiring soba masters would spend 5 years and 3 months learning the art of soba making – 3 years for mixing the dough by hand, 2 years for rolling the dough and 3 months for cutting the dough into strands. While those days of intense apprenticeship are long gone, it still takes a significant amount of time and practice. For example, Ted offers a 20-day intensive course for aspiring soba professionals. Setting our sights a little lower, we opted for Ted’s one-day experience class – you watch Ted’s demonstration of noodle-making, and then he helps out as you make a batch of noodles on your own to take home. With just a couple hours of instruction, you’re not able to actually acquire and retain the skills to make soba independently. But just taking part in the process for a day is so much fun. Also, it’s pretty inspiring to watch and learn from someone who is so passionate and expertly skilled at their craft. Watching Ted’s demonstration, I was completely in awe. Total control and fluidity in his movements, as the buckwheat flour gradually transformed through each step of the noodle-making process, from small balls of dough to their ultimate incarnation as fine buckwheat strands. Kind of hard to describe in words, you can see the entire process below (click on an image, and a carousel of photos will pop up):

It’s so much harder than it looks! Thanks to Ted’s guidance, I think we did pretty well for total novices. My soba turned out pretty ugly though – I couldn’t roll the dough out thin enough, so my noodles turned out pretty short and I also couldn’t manage that giant knife too well, so they were thick as well. But they still tasted really good! In line with his focus on freshness, Ted told us that to experience the best taste, the noodles must be prepared and eaten within 3 days maximum, although first or second day soba is best – even Ted’s dog Cookie, evidently a trained soba connoisseur, won’t eat third day soba. I made my noodles the next morning, preparing them in the traditional zarusoba method- quickly boiled and then chilled, garnished with some roasted seaweed and fresh green onions and served cold with a tsuyu dipping sauce on the side (the sauce is flavoured with dried bonito flakes, soy and mirin;  I just bought a bottle at the Korean grocery store on Bloor). You’re supposed to just pick up some noodles with your chopsticks, dip them in the sauce and slurp away. You could really taste the difference from using fresh handmade noodles. Mmm soba – so good.

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Make Me: Cold Sesame Noodles

It seems I’m a bit obsessed with cold noodles these days. When it’s this hot outside, the last thing I feel like doing is cooking and spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The Chinese noodle dish liang mian/ma jiang mian, cold sesame sauce noodles, is perfect for preparing during the summer since it requires minimal cooking and is best served chilled or at room temperature. You just boil some noodles, slosh on some sauce and the whole thing comes together in about 20 minutes. It’s also really, really delicious. Jonathan, my wonderful test-tasting boyfriend, is a big fan.

One bite of this dish and I’m instantly transported back to Taiwan. While you can get fresh ma jiang mian at many road side noodle stands there, my memories are actually of the 7/11 version. In Taiwan, and in many Asian countries, 7/11s are everywhere, dotting nearly every other street corner (it’s actually a Japanese company dontchaknow). They are literally convenience stores – not only can you find all sorts of goods there, from potato chips to stationery to face wash, and a baffling variety of beverage options including alcohol, but you can even pay your bills and parking tickets there. Quite unlike the Canadian stores, however, where the meal offerings are limited to taquitos and some questionable looking hot dogs, Asian 7/11s sell an astounding assortment of fresh and actually tasty food – sandwiches, rice balls, curries, burgers, fried chicken, noodles. It’s quite a common option for hungry foreigners who aren’t up for tackling language barriers at a local restaurant. It seems like almost everyone eats there though as it’s quick, cheap and tasty. My friends and I used to eat their liang mian once in awhile and I remember it being pretty good.

Liang mian is also an extremely popular dish in the Sichuan region of mainland China, quite similar to the liang pi that I wrote about in a previous post, except that it uses wheat noodles rather than those jelly-like noodle skins. The dish also reminds me of my undergrad days in Montreal and the $2 chow mein slathered in peanut sauce that we used to get on St. Laurent on our late night walks home. For the record, I never really liked those noodles as the sauce was just straight up melted peanut butter, but who can argue with $2 at 3 am. Anyways, the recipe I made at home (below) is much tastier and probably costs less than $2 a serving.

There are about a million variations of liang mian. All of them typically include noodles – wheat, egg or buckwheat – tossed in a base sauce of sesame paste, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce, the measurements of which depend on the recipe and the cook’s taste preferences. The Sichuanese version also usually includes peanut butter, chili oil and crushed sichuan peppercorns in the sauce while the Taiwanese version does not. Some of the recipes call for minced garlic or ginger to be added. There is also great variety among toppings and garnishes, which may include shreds of cucumber, carrot, chicken and/or omelet, chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. Despite my memories of the 7/11 version of these noodles, I tend to prefer them spicy and so opted for a Sichuan style recipe from my favourite food blog, Rasamalaysia. I’ve made a ton of different recipes from this site, even non-noodles ones, and they’ve all been good. The recipe reproduced below is nearly the same as the one from Rasamalaysia, with some very minor variations.

A few quick tips about the recipe:

The base of the sauce is an Asian sesame paste (there are both Japanese and Chinese brands), which can be a bit tricky to find. I’ve bought it at T&T as well as the P.A.T. on Bloor and you can probably find it in most Asian grocery stores. If you’re unable or unwilling to find it though, some people, including Rasamalaysia, have suggested substituting it with the more common tahini – a Middle Eastern sesame paste – mixed with a bit of sesame oil. While tahini is made with hulled sesame seeds, the Asian paste uses the whole seed, lending it a more robust sesame flavour. I haven’t tried the tahini substitution myself and purists would probably turn their nose, but I’m sure it still tastes good.

Japanese sesame paste. There’s no English on the jar but there was an English label at the grocery store to help me identify it.

The sauce of liang mian plays on a balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy. Precise measurements are not super important as it depends on your taste buds. You can make it as per the recipe below, and then play around with the ingredients a bit until you reach a flavour balance that suits you. I favour salty and am averse to overly sweet so I modified the original recipe a bit by using unsweetened peanut butter. I used seasoned rice vinegar because that’s what I had at home, but found it a bit too sweet rather than a punchy sour/acid and will probably try black vinegar next time. The recipe also calls for sweet soy sauce, which I happened to have, but you can use regular soy sauce and add a couple pinches of sugar to taste.

I used buckwheat (soba) noodles and think their flavour and texture goes really well with the sauce, but wheat or egg noodles would work well too. Whichever you choose, make sure to not over-cook them as the springy noodle texture is an important component of this, and almost every, noodle dish.

So here’s the recipe. Let me know if you make them at home and how it turns out.

Recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles

Ingredients

8 oz. buckwheat (soba) noodles (or fresh egg or wheat noodles)

2 small cucumbers

1 small carrot

Chopped scallions

Toasted sesame seeds

Sesame Sauce

2 1/2 tablespoons sesame paste (or 2 tablespoons tahini + 1 tablespoon sesame oil)

1 tablespoon unsweetened peanut butter

1 1/2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (or regular soy sauce + a couple pinches of sugar, but just soy sauce will taste fine too)

2 teaspoons vinegar (rice, black or balsamic)

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon chili oil (or more or less )

salt and sugar to taste

Method

  1. Boil the noodles in salted water according to the package instructions. Drain and rinse in cold running water. Shake out all the excess water and set aside.
  2. Slice the cucumbers lengthwise, into two halves. De-seed each half using a small spoon. Slice cucumber into long, thin strands. Cut the strands into approx. 2 inch lengths.
  3. Peel the carrot (I actually used baby carrots which don’t require peeling and are easy to slice up). Slice into long, thin strands. Cut the strands into approx. 2 inch lengths.
  4. Mix all the sesame sauce ingredients together in a bowl. Taste and adjust according to your preference.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, spoon generous amounts of the sauce onto the noodles. Add the cucumber, carrot and scallions and mix it all together. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes (or if you can’t wait, just serve at room temperature).
  6. Portion the noodles into individual bowls. Garnish with some more cucumber, carrot and scallions (and some more sauce if you want). Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Eat!

Cold Korean Noodles in the Hot Hot Heat

I feel pretty lucky to live in Toronto’s Koreatown (the one around Christie and Bloor – there is also another one around Yonge and Finch). Not only does it have a great Korean grocery store with all the necessities, and then some, for my predominantly Asian pantry (to be clear, it pales in comparison to T&T, especially the newly renovated Promenade branch i.e. my favourite place in Toronto, period – but it’s great for downtown standards) but it also means that I’m surrounded by an abundance of delicious and affordable Korean restaurants. Sometime in June, once the temperatures started reaching into the mid-20s and above, I started noticing many of the restaurants in the neighbourhood putting up signs in their window for ‘cold noodles’ or naengmyun/naengmyeon. Seasonal cold noodles dishes for the hot summer months are common among various Asian cuisines – for example, Thai yum woon sen, Vietnamese bun thit nuong, Japanese zaru soba, and Chinese liang mian. Korean Naengmyun, however, takes the cold factor to the next level.

Having never tried them before, and being constantly taunted by the signs in the window, I was very curious about these noodles. Also, our friend Matt, who used to live in the area and loves noodles perhaps as much as I do, kept telling me how awesome they are. Amid the sweaty, sweltering heat wave of the past couple weeks (and no air conditioning in our apartment!), we finally made plans to go check them out. Matt took us to Sunrise House, a little family-run place that’s made a reputation among its competitors for having some great banchan (various complimentary side dishes such as kimchi and bean sprouts that are served with your meal).

Sunrise House – 661 Bloor Street West, at Manning

Yummy banchan – bean sprouts, seaweed, kimchi, potatoes, sweet potato noodles and spicy cucumbers

Naengmyun, literally cold noodles, refers to a dish of cold buckwheat noodles, commonly prepared in one of two ways. The first is bibim naengmyeon, literally ‘mixed cold noodles’ (similar in name to the infamous Korean dish bibim bap, literally mixed rice). In this dish, the cold buckwheat noodles are smothered in a sauce of chogochujang – a mixture of gochujang (the thick, spicy red chili paste that’s ubiquitous in Korean cuisine), vinegar and sugar – and tossed together in the bowl with some vegetables. Sounds alright, maybe too sweet for my taste.
The real showstopper is the second style of preparation: mool naengmyun, literally water cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles are boiled and then chilled, which halts the cooking process and results in a wonderfully chewy, springy noodle texture. They are then placed in a metal  bowl, to retain their cool temperature, and covered with a chilled beef broth (in some preparations, it may also be chicken or kimchi broth, or a combination of the three). The real kicker, though, is the handful of crushed iced that’s added to the bowl, creating this kind of slush noodle soup. It’s then topped with slices of boiled beef brisket, halves of hard-boiled egg, ribbons of pickled daikon radish, strips of fresh cucumber, and a generous shake of toasted sesame seeds. Some white vinegar and hot mustard paste is also served on the side, to add some tang and heat to the savoury broth, according to your personal taste. The whole dish is certainly unusual, and unbelievably refreshing. You actually feel a cooling sensation after slurping down the icy cold broth and noodles.

Mool naengmyun

Ice ice baby

Matt cutting the super-long noodles with the provided noodle shears, for ease of noodle slurping

Accompanying white vinegar and hot mustard paste – rock on

Interestingly, naengmyun originates from the Ibuk region of present-day North Korea and was initially a winter dish, its chilling preparation deriving from climatic circumstances rather than preference. Apparently the broth for naengmyun was originally prepared with dongchimi, a daikon and cabbage kimchi which is particularly watery. Dongchimi was traditionally stored outdoors and so on really cold nights it would freeze, resulting in the noodles’ icy broth. I can’t imagine wanting to eat this body-chilling dish in January, but it’s an awesome antidote to this scorching summer heat. And the buckwheat noodles are really, really good.

Night market noodling

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I borrowed my mom’s car and hauled our downtown-dwelling selves up to Highway 7 and Warden (indeed, life – and delicious food – exists north of Bloor) to hit up Night It Up, an annual weekend-long food event that seeks to import the night markets of Taiwan, Hong Kong and other asian cities to a parking lot in Markham. Having lived in Taiwan for about a year and half, and having spent a large portion of that time eating and shopping my way through its night markets, I’d say they did a pretty excellent job of emulating the real thing. A night market is, as the name suggests, an area where dozens upon dozens of vendors set up stalls at nighttime and sell a wide variety of local snack foods, alongside other vendors selling clothes, accessories and knick-knacks. It is, in my eyes, part of the unique fabric of Taiwan. Most, if not all, cities in Taiwan have night markets of varying sizes and it’s a place where all people, especially youth, go to hang out on any night of the week. You may have heard of the infamous Snake Alley Night Market in Taipei – a popular tourist destination that’s known for selling some less common items such as turtle blood and snake blood in a shot glass (for male virility, I believe), as well deer penis wine, and various turtle and snake parts to eat. Sometimes the killing of the snake or turtle is made into a crowd-attracting spectacle. However, snake Alley is unique, and not really representative of the typical night markets in Taiwan.

The Night It Up in Markham had some music performances, games, and contests but it was mostly food-focused – yay! While it would have been impossible to offer up the countless variety of snacks that are available in Taiwan’s night markets, they featured all the most popular, or “famous”, ones. Perhaps the most well known is chou doufu – literally, stinky tofu – which is a fermented tofu with a really strong odour. In Taiwan it’s often served deep-fried and topped with a spicy sweet chili sauce and pickled cabbage. When they fry it up, the tofu’s odour is magnified as the smoke from the fryer permeates the air. It’s pretty intense, and kind of smells like garbage and gym socks. Seriously. But it tastes delicious. I love the stuff. It’s not for everyone though. It’s kind of the same deal as with stinky cheese – an acquired taste, which requires first getting over the funky smell. They also had quite a few stalls selling Taiwanese fried chicken – battered cutlets that are fried to an extra-crispy golden brown and then generously dusted with the most delectable, savoury seasoning salt. I still don’t know what’s in that salt but man, is it addictive. We actually tried three different versions. There were also lots of other popular Taiwanese nigh market goodies, like oyster omelets, charcoal-grilled lamb skewers, watermelon juice (here, creatively served in an adorable baby watermelon, with little cocktail umbrella), skewered squid grilled in a sweet n’ salty sauce, takoyaki (Japanese squid balls) and on and on and on.

But let’s get down to business here – the noodles. Despite Taiwan having an abundance of amazing local noodle dishes – like beef noodle soup – they didn’t have any uniquely Taiwanese noodles at Night It Up. Thinking back, I don’t remember seeing so many noodles at the night markets in Taiwan, maybe because unlike meat on a stick or chicken in a bag, they’re not the most convenient thing to hold in hand and eat while walking through a crowd. I guess they’re typically served at restaurants and non-night market stalls. But fret not – I still got to eat some noodles that night.

The first kind, which I was really excited to see here, is a Chinese noodle dish called liáng pí.

While widely available across China (or at least in major cities – I used to buy it at the entrance of a shopping mall in Shanghai), it originates from the northwestern Shaanxi province, whose regional cuisine is characterized by strong, bold, savoury and sometimes sour flavours, and is often extremely spicy as well due to the influence of its neighbouring Sichuan province. Liang pi literally translates to cold skin. That’s not because it actually contains any skin but I’m guessing because the translucent-ish noodles kinda resemble skin? Their texture is quite unique and tricky to describe – smooth, slippery, and jelly-like, but a firm jelly. I’ve never actually seen these noodles being made from scratch but the wikipedia entry provides some insight into their texture: wheat or rice flour is mixed with water to make a dough; the dough is rinsed in a bowl with water to release the starch; the dough is discarded and the starchy white water is left to rest; a starch paste forms at the bottom of the bowl and any water which has risen to the top of the bowl is discarded; the starch paste is spread out into a round pan and the pan is steamed to cook the dough; the dough “pancake” that comes out is finally sliced into long strands that look like noodles. I guess liang pi aren’t technically noodles since they’re made from the starchy by-product of a dough rather than a dough itself – but they look, taste and slurp like a noodle.

While there are variations, liang pi are most often served cold (excellent for summer), swimming in a savoury, vinegary, spicy chili oil sauce that has not been mixed together or cooked rather simply involves spooning different ingredients on to the noodles, so that it may be easily adjusted to taste. At this particular stall, the sauce consisted of chicken broth, sesame paste mixed with soy sauce, and chili oil. I was surprised that there was no vinegar involved. There were also chilled cucumber and carrot shreds to top the noodles, as well as ground peanuts mixed with ground Sichuan peppercorns.

For my taste, this dish was absolutely delicious. I especially liked the ground peppercorns that had been mixed into the peanuts, which added an extra kick of heat on top of the chili oil. My only gripe is that the noodle dough had been cut into chunky cubes rather than strands so that you up ended with a big mouthful of dough to chew on and not enough sauce. They should have been cut into strands which have more surface area and therefore allow for a way better dough/sauce ratio.

If you’re interested in trying some liang pi in Toronto, I know that you can get them at Chinese Traditional Bun on Dundas, just west of Spadina. I’ve never actually ordered their liang pi before but I’ve really liked all of the noodle and dumpling dishes I’ve tried there (most notably their beef and onion pancake roll). They also serve a killer version of liang pi at Xian Famous Foods in New York. This tiny restaurant was first introduced to me by my amazing friend Polina while visiting her in New York back in the summer of 2008. I remember nearly exploding from excitement just looking at their menu, full of all kinds of Shaanxi-style hand-pulled noodle dishes. It’s a definite destination for noodle-lovers and every time I’ve been to New York since then, I’ve had to go eat there, as if by impulse. It’s a pretty popular spot – they’ve been featured on tv shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations – and they live up to the hype. On that note, I just read a great article about them on Serious Eats and the writer explains all their dishes, and the story of the restaurant, really well. Drool. I want some now.

The only other noodles being served at Night It Up were from a stand called Sumo Noodle House. They had two noodle dishes: cold soba and seafood fried udon. Despite the heat, I opted for the latter simply because I have a deep love for fried noodles (probably my favourite kind of noodle preparation). Udon are a thick, round wheat-flour noodle from Japan that are widely available in supermarkets and Japanese restaurants in Toronto. As with all the vendors at the night market, these guys cooked the noodles to order, right in front of you. They started by quickly heating up some garlic in the pan, throwing in some shrimp and octopus, adding the noodles, and frying it all together with a sweet n’ salty unagi sauce (soy+mirin+sugar), so named not because it actually contains eel but because its regularly used in the Japanese grilled eel dish (of which, btw, I am a big fan). They then plated the noodles, sprinkled them with some black sesame seeds, and topped it all with shreds of nori (dried seaweed) and shredded marble cheese. Yep, cheese. To be honest, I was disappointed and a little grossed out when I first saw the cheese. So in the interest of research, I mixed it all together like the vendors suggested and dug in. And oh man, it was so good! The cheese had melted and combined with the unagi sauce to create this creamy comforting coating for the perfectly paired thick and chewy udon (sorry there’s no post-mixing it all together photo). I was surprised at how delicious it was and ate every last bit. Mmm. Then I remembered that Guu also puts shredded cheese in their version of bipimbap and I’ve liked that too. I think cheese is a trend in modern izakaya type food.

Unfortunately, a quick google search suggests that Sumo Noodle House is not an actual restaurant in Toronto – perhaps just a one time thing for the market. But there were so few ingredients involved that it should be pretty simple to make at home, and can be easily modified to suit vegetarians or non-seafood eaters. You can bet your udon I’ll be trying this at home.

If reading this post has made you hungry and/or sad that you missed the awesome once a year night market in Markham, there’s actually another night market going on this weekend, and downtown. It’s the T&T Waterfront Night Market, which will be running from Friday to Sunday night in the parking lot of the T&T supermarket on Cherry St. I think it’s organized by different people so it won’t necessarily have the exact same stuff as the Markham one, but it’ll probably be similar, albeit much smaller. There will definitely be stinky tofu. And probably some noodles.