Mutsuko Soma thinks her restaurant, Miyabi 45th, is the only one on the West Coast serving them regularly.
THE WORD “NOODLES” seems too simple to describe what Mutsuko Soma creates in her Wallingford restaurant.
The 33-year-old is one of just a few U.S. chefs specializing in handmade buckwheat soba noodles — she believes she’s the only one on the West Coast serving them regularly at a restaurant.
Watching her create a day’s batch at Miyabi 45th, it’s more of an art than a task.
Apron dusted with buckwheat flour the color of clay, hands working every air bubble out of a vessel-shaped mass of dough, she describes the technique as “super similar to making pottery.”
Soma grew up in Japan, where her grandmother always made soba for the family, but that was hardly the route the chef imagined when she began her restaurant career.
She attended the Art Institute of Seattle, drawn to the city’s distinct seasons and fresh ingredients. She worked at landmarks including Harvest Vine and Chez Shea, then headed to Tokyo, “the biggest food city,” about 100 miles from her hometown, where she became a certified sommelier at a French restaurant. But her husband had a job offer in Seattle. In the wait to renew her expired green card and rejoin him, she attended “soba school,” three intense months learning the niche skill. Then the 2011 tsunami hit, and green-card processing slowed to a crawl. It took two years to make it back. By then, she had refocused her line of work.
High-quality soba flour in Japan, she had noted, often came from buckwheat grown in Washington.
“This tastes good; how come I’ve never seen it?” she recalls wondering. “Then I started thinking, that’s a good idea. Nobody has seen this.”
Washington is a major buckwheat producer, but exports almost all of it to Japan, where it’s far more common and prized.
In the United States, it’s a secondary or cover crop, one with minor public appeal beyond the occasional pancake fan. It’s hard to even find a mill to properly grind the seeds (it’s technically a seed, not a grain).
That orphan status might be changing. Washington State University’s high-profile Bread Lab in Mount Vernon is studying ways to increase buckwheat’s use and production here. The Port of Skagit is studying the feasibility of a local mill.
Fresh soba noodles are nothing like the dried sticks available in market packages, the ones that are more wheat than buckwheat and turn mushy when cooked.
The process starts each day when Soma gathers her flour — a mix of 80 percent buckwheat and 20 percent wheat, which makes for a finicky low-gluten mix. She pours in water and evenly distributes it by hand, adjusting for humidity and other quirks that could make the dough too dry, too moist, inconsistent or prone to seize up.
With the force and repetitions of a weight lifter, she works the mixture smooth, shaping it at one point into a traditional chrysanthemum-topped pattern, then narrowed into an enormous conical “Hershey’s kiss,” and finally settled into a polished round.
Then the next phase begins. Using narrow rolling pins, Soma flattens the round, expanding it into an enormous, thin circle that practically fills the roughly 4-foot-square table, the pins making a distinctive whoosh like steam hissing through a furnace. A series of sharp, expert thwacks morphs the circle into a square. She manipulates the pins so that the thin, flexible dough rolls around them like a paper scroll, then folds it on top of itself into layers as stratified as a flaky biscuit.
Finally, she takes up a specialized knife to swiftly hand-slice the dough, row after row falling into perfectly spaced, identical ropes.
Later that day, the skeins of noodles will be cooked and served cold with dipping sauce, or hot in broth, or in cold broth with toppings like spicy miso ground duck. The next day, the process will begin anew with another identical batch.
Their perfection is almost machine-like, but no mechanical tool could modulate the medium of dough the way human hands do.
It’s “super labor-intensive,” Soma acknowledges, but, “It’s just muscle memory. You have to make a lot, so your body can learn.”