Japan's Centuries-Old Tradition Of Making Soba Noodles

Aug 28, 2016
Originally published on August 29, 2016 10:10 am

Here in Japan, the buckwheat noodles known as soba are a staple. Nowhere more so than in the mountains of the southern island of Shikoku. The soil there is poor. Buckwheat is one of the few crops that will grow. So the region has been known for its soba for centuries.

Reiko Tsuzuki, 70, has been carrying on the tradition of soba-making for more than four decades. She runs a small restaurant — Tsuzuki Soba House — in a little village in the remote mountains.

She runs the place by herself: preparing and serving the food and pouring endless cups of tea from an enormous brass kettle. As if that weren't enough, she also serenades her guests with a traditional song.

It's a song sung by women as they grind the buckwheat for soba by hand. Roughly translated, it goes, "Don't be mean to your daughter-in-law," the one who would traditionally be stuck with this tedious job, because "someday your daughter will marry and become a daughter-in-law herself."

The place where Tsuzuki makes soba is in a building next door to the restaurant. It's a bright, airy kitchen, where modern stainless steel tables share space with traditional straw tatami mats. And it's large enough for Tsuzuki to teach her technique to students — ordinary people who want to be able to make soba at home. She's determined to preserve and pass on soba-making and other Iya Valley traditions.

Tsuzuki demonstrates the process. First, she kneels on the tatami mats before an old-fashioned stone grinder. She's a tiny woman, not even 5 feet tall, but she can turn the grinding stone with one hand while brushing in buckwheat kernels with the other. The rhythm is hypnotic. But it's so much effort for so little flour. That's why, these days, Tsuzuki uses mostly machine-ground buckwheat. But she always adds a little of the hand-ground stuff. She says it just tastes better.

The buckwheat flour goes into a bowl. Then she adds some water. And that's it, the entire recipe for soba, at least the way Tsuzuki makes it.

She kneads the dough into a ball and then rolls it out until it's paper thin. She gently folds it into layers, then takes a knife and slices it into delicate strands.

She used to make thicker noodles, she says, but it's not the fashion anymore. She has to change with the times, in order to keep the old traditions alive.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And one more word from overseas - this from Japan, where soba noodles are a staple on the dinner table. They're made from buckwheat, and in the mountains of the island of Shikoku, not much grows except for buckwheat. So people there have had centuries to refine their soba technique. NPR's Ina Jaffe recently met a woman in a little Shikoku village who's been making soba the old-fashioned way for more than four decades, and she sent us this audio postcard.

REIKO TSUZUKI: (Singing in foreign language).

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: There's a traditional song that women sing while grinding the buckwheat flour to make soba.

TSUZUKI: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: It says don't be mean to your daughter-in-law, the one who does the tedious work of grinding the flour because some day your daughter will marry and become a daughter-in-law herself.

TSUZUKI: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: The singer is 70-year-old Reiko Tsuzuki. She's serenading about a dozen lunchtime guests in her tiny restaurant in the remote Iya Valley. She's got a case full of trophies for her singing, but it's her soba that leads people to seek her out here.

Tsuzuki's kitchen is next door to the restaurant. It's a light, airy space where she also gives classes.

TSUZUKI: (Foreign language spoken).

JAFFE: She says she doesn't want soba-making or other Iya Valley traditions to be lost or forgotten.

So she kneels to demonstrate the stone grinder. She's a tiny woman, but she can crank the heavy grinding stone with one hand while brushing in buckwheat kernels with the other. There's so much effort for so little flour. These days, Tsuzuki uses mostly machine-ground flour. Still, she always includes at least some of the hand-ground stuff. She says it just tastes better. The buckwheat flour goes into a bowl. She adds some water, and now you know the recipe for soba. There is nothing else in it, at least not the way Tsuzuki makes it.

She rolls out the dough 'til it's paper thin, gently folds it, then takes a knife and slices it into delicate strands. She used to make thicker noodles, she says, but it's not the fashion anymore.

TSUZUKI: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: So you can change with the times and still keep the old traditions alive, just like she's changed the end of this traditional song to invite her guests to return to the Iya Valley and enjoy handmade soba again.

TSUZUKI: (Singing in foreign language).

(APPLAUSE)

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.