Japanese people love their noodles. Across the country, you can’t visit any size community that doesn’t have a ramen shop. But ramen is a Chinese import. There are lots of indigenous Japanese noodles, too. On a recent trip to Shikoku, I not only encountered plenty of these noodles, I got to have lessons in how they are made.
Deep in the upper reaches of the Iya Valley is Kodai Soba Taiken Academy, which offers workshops on soba making. At a location perched between the road and the Iya River far below, visitors can enjoy a country-style lunch (including fresh venison, if you’re lucky) as well as the soba-making lesson.
The lesson begins with donning a head scarf and apron and washing up (of course). Next, buckwheat, interesting pyramid-shaped brown seeds, is stone ground while the instructor, a comical little farm wife whose name I failed to catch, explains that buckwheat’s popularity in this area stems largely from the fact that rice cannot be grown in this terrain, while buckwheat thrives.
She also describes household traditions, including the fact that stone grinding is often a late night task shared by mothers-in-law and young wives, a chance for them to bond and gossip after everyone else has retired for the night. There is even a song that women often sing while grinding.
After the buckwheat is stone ground and the chaff sifted away, the remaining flour is mixed with a bit of water and kneaded into dough.
Once the dough is rolled out–there is a very particular process to get it to the correct thickness–the dough was carefully folded, to make it easier to cut it into the prescribed width to produce the noodles.
Our reward for these efforts is a bowl of freshly-produced, freshly-cooked soba. Our noodles are dropped into boiling water, briefly cooked, then drained and put into waiting bowls of broth for us to slurp up.
The entire experience (including lunch) takes about two hours and costs between 1,000 and 3,000 yen per person, depending on the course you choose.
- Address: 84-1 Wakabayashi, Higashi Iya, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima
- Hours: by appointment
- Contact: 0883-88-5625 (in Japanese)
The little town of Kotohira in Kagawa Prefecture (about 40 minutes by bus from Takamatsu Airport) has much to recommend it (I’ll write more about that in the future). A highlight of my visit was the hour we spent at the Nakano Udon School. Udon is a wheat flour-based noodle, usually much fatter and softer than soba, but generally served in the same ways. Sanuki Udon, the udon of this region of Japan, is regarded as the most popular type of udon in Japan today and it is what we learned to make.
Our instructor, Miyake-san (“call me Mi-chan, everyone does”), wasted no time in giving us little “bars” of pre-prepared udon dough (they were heavy and hard, almost like mochi pounded rice cakes) and having us roll them out as she explained various tricks of rolling that helped us to produce noodles of the correct length and thickness. Note that the rolling pin serves as the “yardstick”.
After rolling, we folded the dough in the same manner as with soba in order to more easily cut the noodles. We then packaged our freshly hand-cut udo–and a bag of concentrated broth–in special bags on which we had written our names. After these were machine sealed we had a very professional looking product which we got to take home to enjoy later.
According to Mi-chan, we were to eat our noodles within three days (I may have ultimately eaten mine on the fourth day…). It’s also possible to have the udon cooked and eat it on site, but we already had lunch plans so we chose to take ours home. (Just indicate your preference when you call to make a reservation–see details below.)
But our lesson didn’t end there. Next Mi-chan explained to us the science of making udon dough, most particularly how the quantity of each ingredient (flour, water and salt) varied with the season and the weather. Detailed instructions (with an English translation separately provided) were also provided on the back of our “graduation certificates”, a scroll cleverly rolled around the rolling pin that we would need to “roll our own” at home, and ensure that the length of the rolled dough was correct–a really cool keepsake.
After Mi-chan’s mini-lecture, we made and kneaded udon dough.
Now came the interesting part. The hand-kneaded dough gets additional kneading by foot. Uh-huh. We put the dough into plastic bags and stepped on it. (One wonders what they did before the age of plastic…) To help us get into the groove, Mi-chan put on some loud music with a dancing beat and we literally danced on our udon dough.
It would never have occurred to me to dance on noodle dough, which just goes to show that sometimes it’s a good idea to take lessons on how to do things properly, especially in Japan!
- Address: 796 Kotohira-cho, Nakatado-gun, Kagawa
- Hours: 9:00-15:00 (reservations required)
- Contact: 0877-75-0001
- Cost: JPY1,300-1,500 (min. 2 persons)
I don’t think I’ll ever look at Japanese noodles the same way again. But, in a way, I’ll probably enjoy them that much more, as while eating I can recall my own experiences making them.
© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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