Some of you may be all, “Hey, where’d Sharon go?”
To those people (although I do appreciate you noticed I was gone), I’d have to be all, “Back off! I’ve been making Okinawa soba. From scratch!”
Above you have the fruits of all-day labor. All. Day. And boy, was it worth it. This is a Real Deal Holyfield recipe for people who don’t want to cut corners. We’re talking homemade pork stock, thick, chewy noodles containing a somewhat bizarre secret ingredient (don’t worry, I reveal it below), and rafute (pork belly braised in Awamori, an Okinawan liquor with a taste somewhere between Jack Daniels and sake).
Why all the labor? Why the countless hours? Well sit back, and let me take you back to 2006, when my mom, uncle and I had the best bowl of noodles known to man at Kishimoto Soba in Motobu, Okinawa. This restaurant (if you could call this nondescript shack a restaurant) isn’t one you’ll find in guidebooks; instead, it’s one you take a chance on based on the long line that spans outside the door and down the back alley. It’s a line that makes you overlook the patrons who have to step outside to wash their hands at the outdoor sink, or the 30-minute wait it takes to duck inside the cramped, bare-bones room and eat at a table full of strangers. As we waited outside that afternoon, I peaked into a window leading into the kitchen. I saw an elderly woman smile back at me, countless creases forming around her eyes, making her look even older. Dried noodles hung around her from every imaginable corner, making her little shack look as if it had just been toilet-papered on Halloween. “Heck,” I joked to my mom, “a restaurant’s got to be doing something right if its menu only has two options [“small bowl” or “large bowl”].”
A little background: upon arriving in Naha about a week prior, we had consumed countless bowls of soba. Each bowl was delicious, yet all were pretty much the same: a piece of tender rafute, a slice of steamed fish cake, pickled ginger, scallions, all placed atop a bed of noodles swimming in broth. So what made Kishimoto’s noodles so special? I wondered this aloud as I dug into my bowl that afternoon. Why were these so much chewier and more flavorful?
“Tree ash,” my mom’s cousin Eddie said brightly, between slurps.
I looked at Eddie suspiciously, yet quickly chalked up his answer to a translation glitch (overlooking the fact that his English is impeccable). Then—as is quite easy to do—I thought nothing of tree ash for many, many months to come.
Back in New York years later, however, my mom and I couldn’t shake that meal. The noodles haunted our dreams, and caused wails of disappointment if we tried to re-create the magic in soba houses across Manhattan. Nothing came close.
But, as luck would have it, one day my mom received an Okinawan cookbook from a friend by mail. Under the description for “Okinawa Soba,” plain as day, it instructed: “For two months, dry chopped wood, then burn to ash.”
No shit, I thought. Eddie wasn’t pulling our leg!
On further investigation, my mom and I learned that kneading flour with the lye obtained from natural wood ashes is a traditional method of making noodles that’s been around for many, many years in areas of China and Thailand, and, in Japan, solely in Okinawa. That’s all my mom needed to hear before she began to ask co-workers with wood-burning stoves to save their ashes.
It was time to bring Kishimoto’s noodles to New York!
Here follows the long arduous, process of making Okinawa Soba, in three parts: 1.) Okinawa Soba Noodles, 2.) Rafute, and 3.) Okinawa Soba (ie: the broth, and putting it all together).
[Note: my mom and I did this whole process in a day. It would be very easy to make the stock ahead of time, and/or the rafute the day before to break up the process. Or, maybe the first time, you just want to make the noodles and buy store-bought broth. Or skip the rafute altogether! I’ve outlined all the steps below, but it is of course dealer’s choice as to how you want to proceed. Pick and choose if you like. …just don’t come complaining to me if you don’t get the same five-star results. And no matter WHAT, read this blog entry all the way through before you start making anything, or you will never, ever come to this blog again out of sheer hatred for me when you realize that certain things should’ve been started the night before.]
Okinawa Soba (just the noodles)
In case you don’t relish the idea of eating soba two months from now because you need to wait for your chopped wood to dry and rid itself of its natural sap, collect ashes from a wood-burning stove or a fireplace (one cup is more than enough).
Mix wood ash with 2-3 times the amount of water:
Set it overnight. The next day, take the clear top of the liquid:
... and strain it through a cotton cloth (cheesecloth works, or even a paper towel or coffee filter will do):
This is your ash water. Reserve 1 cup of ash water, which is all you will need for the noodles.
In a separate bowl, mix 3 ¾ cup flour, 2 tsp. of salt, and 1 cup of ash water to make the dough. Knead the dough thoroughly for about 20-30 minutes.
(Really, don’t skimp on this part. Break up the dough into two separate pieces if it’s too big to handle.)
Once dough is thoroughly kneaded, separate it into four equal balls, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest for about 1 hour at room temperature.
For the next part, my mom and I busted out Angie, our KitchenAid Mixer. Roll the four balls flat, and then put the dough through the pasta roller attachment, on the lowest speed, and at the lowest level:
Once the dough is through the roller, fold it in half, turn the thickness to 2, and run it through once more. Repeat until you are at a thickness of 3.
Next, run the dough through the pasta cutter attachment:
...and hang the finished pieces on a pasta rack:
(Don’t have an Angie? Don’t be discouraged. The dough can be made the old-fashioned way, too. Roll it out and cut it with a knife instead.)
Next, bring water to a boil, and boil the noodles (in separate batches—don’t overload the pot) until cooked.
Drain the noodles thoroughly and mix with vegetable oil to prevent sticking.
Note: The noodles are probably the last thing you should make, as you want to roll the dough, hang it, and boil the noodles as close as possible to serving time to ensure freshness. Make sure your broth and rafute are complete first. So why did I share this part with you first? Your ash has to set overnight. Do that, then set the rest aside.
Rafute (aka: pork belly, aka: the bomb)
Recipe adapted from the blog, Three Tastes.
Not everyone has a bottle of Okinawan Awamori handy to braise pork belly. Whiskey or sake will also work well (our particular bottle of Awamori reminded us of Jack Daniels). As for the pork belly, go to your Asian butcher and ask for 3 lbs. of not-too-lean pork belly:
Make sure your butcher doesn’t take off the top layer of fat. (Isn’t that picture absolutely magnificent?)
Place whole pieces of pork belly, and ¼ cup of sliced ginger into a heavy-bottomed pan. Add ¼ cup of awamori (or whiskey or sake), then cover the meat with water.
Over medium heat, bring the liquid just to a boil, then cover and immediately reduce it to a simmer. Simmer for 1 hour, making sure to top off the pork belly with hot water to keep the meat covered.
Remove the pork from the liquid (awwww... what did we do? It’s not nearly as pretty anymore):
Reserve the liquid (chill it, and remove the layer of lard on the surface).
When the pork is cool enough, slice it 2 ½ inches across, and about ½ inch thick:
Next, combine 1 cup of the reserved broth from the boiling stage (the liquid you just removed the lard from), 1 cup of awamori (or whiskey or sake), ¾ cup raw sugar, and a slice of ginger into a heavy-bottomed pan. Bring to a boil over high-heat. Reduce the heat to medium, and then add the sliced pork belly:
When the heat begins to bubble, reduce it to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 25 minutes.
Turn the slices over, cover again, and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Add ¼ cup of soy sauce and stir to combine with the rest of the braising liquid. Cook for 15 minutes at the lowest simmer with no cover so that the liquid starts to evaporate. Turn the slices over again and continue cooking without a cover for another 15 minutes or so:
Keep cooking, you’re not done. You want more of that liquid to evaporate so that the pork belly glazes and looks sticky. It’s imperative you get to the sticky stage, because the pork tastes sooooo much better:
When you’re finished, the pork belly is ready to be added to your soup....That is ...if only you had soup. Why did I go out of order again? Because the rafute keeps well in the fridge for over a week and will last months in the freezer. Make it ahead of time. When you are ready to use it, re-heat it on an oiled skillet over medium heat. Or throw it in the oven. That works, too.
Okinawa Soba (aka: the broth, and putting it all together)
Once again, go to your friendly neighborhood Asian butcher and ask for about 3 lbs. of pork bones (we used neck bones, but you can use rib or hip bones), broken into large pieces.
Wash bones in boiling water until they are clean. Add water to cover the pork bones in a large pot and boil.
Remove pork and rinse it. Discard water in pot, and boil a new pot of water for the stove:Add pork to boiling water, then reduce heat to a slow simmer for 2 to 3 hours. After simmering for about 1 ½ hours, add about ½ cup of (optional) dried bonito flakes (you can wrap them in a cloth), or, if you don’t have a cloth, you can always strain the flakes out later.
Once the broth has reduced, filter the stock through a cloth into a separate pot and continue simmering. Add salt, or soy sauce to taste, depending on your preference. At this point, you should have a nicely flavored broth. If you’re disappointed with the results, keep in mind the flavor will be taken up considerably when you add the noodles, rafute, ginger, steamed fish cake (kamaboko: found at any Asian specialty store), shiitake mushrooms, and scallions:
Assembly steps: Place the ash noodles in a bowl, and cover with the soup stock you just made. Garnish with a slice of rafute, fish cake, scallions, mushrooms, and sliced red pickled ginger. Add a dash of soy sauce, and serve hot.
You sure as heck deserved it.
(My mom made me change the last part to “heck.”)
Special thanks to: mom (of course—where would I be without her?); Grandma (who did a test run with my mom before I got involved); Eddie, who introduced us to the real-deal Okinawa soba that magical afternoon; and Kishimoto Soba for making us all believers.