The king of noodles

The master ... Sensei Akila Inoue carefully measures and mixes the ingredients before rolling, cutting and serving the soba noodles.
The master ... Sensei Akila Inoue carefully measures and mixes the ingredients before rolling, cutting and serving the soba noodles. Photo: Danielle Demetriou

Danielle Demetriou finds mixing flour and water a hard-won skill.

My face is covered in flour, my arms are aching and my mind is a tangle of calculations. Not only am I making a poor impersonation of a Japanese housewife, complete with headscarf and pinny, I am also questioning the sanity of my mission - to master the art of soba noodle making.

Cold, skinny, brown and always slurped, soba noodles may at first sight appear to inhabit the less-appetising end of the Japanese culinary spectrum.

Appearances can be deceptive, though, and earthy soba buckwheat noodles are as quintessential a member of the Japanese food family as sushi.

Once the domain of salarymen, soba noodles are now enjoying a renaissance among younger Japanese due to their health-giving credentials.

They are rich in protein, essential amino acids and the compound rutin, which helps to reduce blood pressure and has anti-ageing properties. Best of all, they are low in calories.

A growing number of soba lovers are cementing their love of the brown noodles by qualifying as a "sobalier" - an expert in all things soba.

Keen to decode soba's mysterious attractions (and maybe impress friends with a here's-something-I-just-rustled-up soba dinner party), I make my way to a class at the Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo. After arriving at the third floor of a building not far from the city's famous fish market, I swap shoes for slippers at the entrance and head into the classroom.

Here, in a large open-plan space lined with rows of wooden tables where professional Japanese chefs train alongside occasional one-off beginners such as myself, I meet my sensei (teacher), Akila Inoue, the charismatic man behind the academy who eats, sleeps and breathes all things soba.

Donning my apron and headscarf, I ask him why he loves soba. His face breaks into a wide smile before he flamboyantly declares: "Because they are the king of noodles! And making them is easy as a piece of cake.”

It doesn't take long for me to doubt his words, however. Gazing at a whiteboard crowded with complicated figures, I learn that although soba noodles contain only flour and water, the simplicity of content belies complexity of method.

Inoue measures out a ratio of two to eight in terms of buckwheat flour and normal flour, before calculating the humidity in the air and concluding that the amount of water used today should be 241 grams - precisely 38.5 per cent of the amount of flour. So far, so confusing.

He then outlines the three key parts to making perfect soba noodles - mixing, flattening and cutting - and things become more fun.

Mixing the contents in a large metal bowl, I clumsily attempt to mimic the blurred professional flurry of my teacher's fingers. "It should be as soft as a baby's cheek," explains the ever-beaming Inoue. And it's harder than it looks. My arms - more practised at raising cocktail glasses than baking - soon scream in protest until Inoue intervenes and helps achieve the desired soft dough.

Next, he produces a raft of rolling pins and a large pile of measuring discs, before instructing me to flatten the dough from a height of eight millimetres to 1 1/2 millimetres. Unfortunately, my dough appears to have a life of its own and I find the pins only fractionally less unwieldy to manoeuvre than the steering wheel of a truck.

Finally, after much flapping on my part and considerable patience from my teacher, the dough is suitably flattened and a gargantuan ninja-style knife is produced.

Leaning the blade against a contraption that holds the noodles in place, I push it to the bottom with a satisfying slice before repeating along the dough. I feel a rush of pride as my first batch of noodles is complete.

The ultimate test, of course, is in the eating. After the fresh noodles are briefly cooked and cooled, I dunk them in a dipping sauce, raise them to my mouth with chopsticks and savour them with the ultimate sign of appreciation; a long and satisfied "sobalier" slurp.

Tsukiji Soba Academy (soba.specialist.co.jp; +81 3 5148 5559) has beginner workshops with English teachers for ¥10,500 ($130). Classes take place at weekends and last for about 3 1/2 hours.

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