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The Buckwheat Stops Here

August 24, 1995|LINDA BURUM | Burum honed her soba cooking expertise while writing "Asian Pasta: A Cook's Guide to the Noodles, Wrappers and Pasta Creations of the East." and

The three Buddhist monks dressed in shimmering robes seemed out of place at first as they chanted o-kyo verses and tossed silken lotus petals into the air amid the machinery of the factory in Walnut. But they were performing an important service: blessing Cold Mountain, California's first Japanese-style buckwheat milling factory.

As the monks finished the rite, there was a soft rumble, the sound of refrigerated buckwheat rushing through pipes to the new milling machine the monks had just blessed. Minutes later the first batch of warm, fresh soba flour was passed around for the assembled crowd to taste.

"Our soba," says Noritoshi Kanai, owner of Cold Mountain, "is soba of America, by Americans, for Americans." The buckwheat comes from farms in North Dakota, the factory's employees are American and the product is geared for the American market.

Cold Mountain's flour goes to a Pasadena noodle factory, where soba noodles are made under the brand name Miyako for Mutual Trading Inc., Kanai's food distribution company based in downtown Los Angeles.

Although the Los Angeles company Nanka Seimen has been producing buckwheat noodles since before World War II, Californians traditionally import soba from Japan. Even so, much of the imported soba is made from American buckwheat. More than 90% of North Dakota's buckwheat crop is exported to Japan, Kanai says. Although buckwheat has long been grown for pancake mix and Russian-style roasted buckwheat groats (kasha), the North Dakota varieties were developed to suit Japanese tastes.

"We have the raw materials here," Kanai said. "We don't need to send it to Japan to be made and then import the noodles."

Soba, as lovers of Japanese food know, means both buckwheat and a light-brown noodle made from a mixture of buckwheat and wheat flours. Once considered the food of people who couldn't afford rice, today it's Japan's supreme fast food. People there buy it at stand-up tachi-gui counters in subway and train stations, from roving dispensaries like hot-dog carts and even in exquisite rustic restaurants, where the noodles are attentively made by skilled artisans.

Japan has about 40,000 soba noodle establishments, with more than 11,000 in Tokyo alone. Soba delivery is a bigger business in Japan than pizza delivery here, and every day tons of soba, dried and fresh, are sold in Japan's markets for cooking at home.

Kanai, an impassioned soba promoter, has traveled around Japan to learn the art of soba making for himself. From time to time he can be seen demonstrating his soba-making techniques to groups of friends. He believes that fresh soba is about to break into the American market in a big way and that the noodles will eventually be as popular as sushi was in the '70s.

"Soba is the kind of food Americans are starting to eat now," he says. "It's extremely healthy." Kanai notes that it is high in fiber and minerals and has cholesterol-lowering properties.

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To help his optimistic prediction come to pass, Kanai's company prepares and packages his soba noodles as ready-to-eat convenience products. These are common in Japan, where soba can be purchased precooked or fresh-frozen with packets for a sauce or soup base.

Soba lovers are fussy about the flavor and style of their noodles. To meet their standards, the Cold Mountain mill refrigerates its grain and flour so the flavor keeps better. Kanai has also imported Japanese noodle-making machines that emulate the te-uchi or handmade noodle techniques of soba artisans.

These machines mix the noodle dough in a vacuum, a process that imitates the hand kneading required to get soba flour to absorb water thoroughly. The dough is then flattened between rollers that simulate the pressure of the wooden dowels soba makers use to roll out their dough. Finally, the machine slices the dough into the square-edged noodle shapes of knife-cut noodles.

For soba purists, the Cold Mountain factory also makes sarashina soba flour. Unlike the whole-grain buckwheat flour used for regular soba noodles, sarashina is milled from the inner layers of the buckwheat kernel.

Because it's lighter and softer than the whole-grain product, it can make a more intensely buckwheat-flavored noodle. Buckwheat contains no gluten, and regular soba noodles have to be about 40% wheat to retain their shape. But gannen soba noodles, made from sarashina , need be only 20% wheat flour. Mutual provides some restaurants with this flour and will soon begin manufacturing its own gannen noodles.

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