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Friday, Nov. 23, 2012

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A cut above: Handmade soba noodles taste even better when made with new-harvest flour, and especially in fall. MAKIKO ITOH

JAPANESE KITCHEN

Fresh soba flour is fall's precious prize


The obsession with fresh, seasonal food in Japan extends to things that you may not even think of as having seasons, such as dried flour. Shin-soba-ko (new fall-harvest buckwheat flour, used in soba noodles) is eagerly anticipated every year by Japanese gourmets. While soba flour has two harvests, one from June to July and another from September to November, the fall crop is held in higher regard.

Fresh new-harvest soba flour is a little darker in color than regular soba flour, and when very fresh has a faint greenish tinge. The flour feels soft and ever so slightly moist compared with the dry feel of older flour. (In fact, new-harvest soba flour is perishable and needs to be stored well sealed in the refrigerator.) Noodles and other products made with new-harvest soba flour are nuttier in flavor and more bouncy and chewy (al dente) than those made with older flour.

The most highly regarded soba flour comes from the Shinshu region around Nagano Prefecture, although it's also grown in Hokkaido and other areas of Japan. Most soba consumed in Japan these days is imported from China or North America, but new-harvest soba is strictly domestic and mostly from Shinshu. Soba is so important to the economy of Nagano that it's an important tourism draw as well as an agricultural product.

New-harvest soba is best enjoyed as simply as possible. The most popular way is as hand-cut noodles, either at a traditional soba restaurant or bought from a specialist dealer or department-store food hall. Making soba noodles from scratch is more difficult than making other types of noodles or pasta because of the lack of gluten and elasticity in the dough. Soba-uchi (soba-noodle making) has become a popular hobby, with classes springing up all over the country in recent years.

A much simpler yet still traditional way of enjoying the fragrance of new-harvest soba flour is as soba-yu, hot soba-infused water that's usually the water in which noodles have been boiled. At a traditional soba restaurant such as Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, you are served a ceramic pot of soba-yu to pour into your dipping sauce or just enjoy on its own.

My mother often used to make soba-yu by dissolving a tablespoonful of soba flour in a little cold water, then adding boiling water slowly while stirring. This made a slightly thick, milky-colored liquid. We'd have this with our soba noodles and tsuyu (dipping sauce), or she'd add a bit of salt or soy sauce to it and make us children drink it when we had a cold as a very warming, soothing drink. Maybe that's one reason the fall harvest means so much to me too.

If you're planning ahead for the New Year and want to celebrate it with traditional Japanese food, now until the first week of December is the best time to put in your order for osechi (New Year's food) box meals. You can't miss them if you go to any department-store food hall or supermarket, and even some convenience stores offer them. They are expensive but much easier than trying to make everything yourself. Next time I'll be talking more about the symbolism and history of osechi food, and preparing for the New Year holiday.

Makiko Itoh is the author of "The Just Bento Cookbook" (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

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