Soba noodles at Ippuku

Homemade soba ready for lunch.
Josh Escobar/Staff
Homemade soba ready for lunch.

A brief history of soba

Like pasta, soba originally developed from gruel and polenta. Unlike pasta, these precursors of soba were eaten by “ninja and ascetics who spent extended periods of time training or traveling in remote mountain areas” (James Udesky, “The Book of Soba”).

Modern science has demonstrated the health value of buckwheat since the year 722, when Empress Gensho called upon farmers to grow more buckwheat to subdue famine. Buckwheat grows in a remarkable 75 days. It flourishes in barren soil but remains full of usable proteins and essential amino acids (Udesky).

According to buckwheat historian Shigeru Niijima, soba noodles were developed sometime between 1596 and 1614. Around that time, the provincial, urban-based royalty was losing political power to the samurai in the countryside, who prized soba over exotic delicacies. Soba noodles amassed widespread fame with the construction of Edo around the mid-17th century because soba was affordable, quick to serve and very filling. A preindustrial city, Edo attracted many construction workers, who in turn crafted the basic wood tools to make soba by hand. Nowadays, you can find a soba shop in or around the corner from every train station in Tokyo.

Soba in Berkeley

Master soba chef Koichi Ishii has been working at Ippuku for a year and a half. After studying small-business management at Glendale Community College and Phoenix College, he went to Yamagata, Japan, where he honed his craft over the course of three years.

At 8 a.m. on a Friday, while other chefs clean and prep, he begins making the first batch of soba. Because soba dries fast, Ishii must work quickly to form noodles from flour and water. At 9 a.m., the noodle is completed and ready for lunch service, which runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Ishii sifts the buckwheat flour into a large bowl and gradually adds water to the flour while stirring with his hands. Photo by Josh Escobar.

Ishii sifts the buckwheat flour into a large bowl and gradually adds water to the flour while stirring with his hands.

The soba clumps, but Ishii stirs and adds water until he can amass it into one solid brick.

The soba clumps, but Ishii stirs and adds water until he can amass it into one solid brick.

Ishii kneads the dough while using its own weight to compress it.

Ishii kneads the dough while using its own weight to compress it.

The soba dough has all the water necessary. Ishii sculpts the brick of dough into a disk.

The soba dough has all the water necessary. Ishii sculpts the brick of dough into a disk.

The disk is rolled out into a scroll.

The disk is rolled out into a scroll.

Each sheet is put in place, and little adjustments are made.

Each sheet is put in place, and little adjustments are made.

The final cut.

The final cut.

Homemade soba ready for lunch.

Homemade soba ready for lunch.

The Ten Zaru Soba at Ippuku is served cold on a bamboo mat with nori, fresh green onion, grated daikon, wasabi and a dipping sauce. To eat it, you dip the noodles in the sauce. Each soba chef makes his own sauce and keep the ingredients a secret, but according to Ishii, when it comes to pairing homemade soba, “the simpler the sauce is, the better.” At the end of the meal, you drink the rest of your dipping sauce with soba-yu, the water that was used for boiling the fresh soba. It is nutritious, subtly sweet and soothing. Eating soba at Ippuku makes you realize how chefs such as Ishii can create astonishing flavors with just a few masterful strokes.

All photos were taken by Josh Escobar. Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected]