Clean and soba: fresh soba noodles at Hiro Sushi
Consider for a moment the artistry of a bowl of handmade soba noodles crowned with a large chunk of freshly made oboro tofu and thinly sliced scallion. The flavours are pure but very subtle: a hint of primeval earthiness, a slight woodsy tone, some salty notes, but nothing to jar the palate. Harmony.
The textures are bolder, but progress on a scale: the custard-like oboro tofu dissolves in the mouth, the chilled soba noodles offer resistance to the tooth, and the slight crunch of scallion counterbalances it all. Dipped in soba tsuyu -- the traditional soy and bonito-based sauce accompaniment -- the combination is lively and refreshing.
It all seems so simple, yet hundreds -- even thousands -- of years of skill and history, taste and tradition are summoned in the hours before the meal, to turn the humblest of raw ingredients, some buckwheat and soy beans, into an artisanal gastronomic statement.
Fresh, handmade soba noodles are available at Hiro Sushi on Sunday only, when this icon of Toronto's Japanese food scene is taken over for the afternoon by Soba Canada. Soba Canada's noodle making is guided by its "San-Tate" policy, which derives its name from the Japanese words for three, "san," and just done, "tate," because the three crucial steps are done as close to service as possible.
I was awestruck reading about the time, effort, and care Soba Canada puts into making their noodles. Let's look at the first tenet of the San-Tate policy, "Hiki-Tate," roughly translated as "freshly ground flour." Actually, let's go one step beyond that to the selection and care of the buckwheat itself. Soba Canada emphasizes the primacy of buckwheat in the quality of the finished noodle:
We use only finest new crops (No.1 Canada grade) of whole buckwheat harvested in Manitoba in late autumn. We clean and sort them out according to the kernel size again. Then vacuum pack into bags of several sizes with inert gas flushed and oxygen absorber placed. Thus ready for storage in our freezer for hibernation. Fruits of the buckwheat even after reaping are still in full energy of germination. To put them in the hibernation is the best way to keep buckwheat as fresh as possible avoiding possible deterioration. By this method we can guarantee Shin-soba's (New Crop's) quality for 365 days a year. So it could be said that our Soba is "Yon Tate"(Four Tate) adding Tori-Tate (Just Reaped) on top of San-Tate. Nobody, even a Maestro of Soba, cannot make excellent soba without using good buckwheat.
Astonishing, isn't it? But storing the buckwheat is just the start. Because the flavour compounds in buckwheat are extremely volatile once ground, it loses as much as seventy percent of its flavour and aroma compounds within thirty minutes of being milled. As if that weren't enough, modern metal milling machines run at such high speeds (approximately 300 rpm) that they generate enough heat to damage the quality of they buckwheat they're grinding. Soba Canada's answer to these problems is to mill their buckwheat flour in a traditional Japanese stone mill that runs at only 16 rpm, and to mill their flour immediately before making noodles.
"Uchi-Tate," or just kneaded and cut, is the second element of Soba Canada's policy. Understanding the art of making soba requires a little science lesson. All doughs -- whether pasta, pie crust, bread, or soba noodles -- are held together by gluten, a protein matrix activated when flour and water are mixed together. Wheat flour contains varying levels of gluten, but buckwheat contains none, which means it's extremely difficult to make a well-textured soba dough. It seems that even soba masters use some wheat flour in their noodles to overcome this problem, typically on the order of twenty percent, while novices usually start with a fifty-fifty split. For pictures of the process, click here.
The final critical step in preparing excellent soba noodles is to cook and chill them immediately before service, "Yude-Tate," and to dress them with delicate, flavourful ingredients. And what beautiful combinations. The aforementioned oboro tofu is made that morning using non-GMO soybeans and natural nigari, the traditional Japanese seawater coagulant. Snow crab, emboldened with a dash of wasabi is, as the menu promises, "Gorgeous!" The slightly bitter daikon adds bite to the tender noodle. All are served with tsuyu.
Nothing is wasted. The water in which the soba noodles are cooked is served, accompanied by a little tsuyu, as a traditional post-meal tea. This soba-yu is thick and starchy -- our first impression was of viscous pasta water -- but its warmth provides a pleasant contrast to the chill of the main dishes and each sip tastes better and better. Dessert is a moist, delicate soy cake, made from the leftovers of the morning's tofu-making process. Served with a tiny dollop of whipped cream and a dash of lemon zest, this cake is delicate enough to maintain the harmony of the dishes that preceded it.
A Sunday afternoon bathed in spring sunshine. A small restaurant with the feel of a neighbourhood favourite, with customers greeting each other with kisses and bouncing well-behaved babies on their knee. A meal of exquisitely prepared food that reflects centuries of expertise distilled into deceptive simplicity. It’s all so delicious that you wish just for a minute that you had more. Then the moment passes, and you realize that it is enough, and you are deeply satisfied.