Monday, March 15, 2010

Okinawa Soba... Behold!

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. (Isnt 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 coursewhere 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.


  1. All I can say is... wow. I never really cook anything myself, so I'm always in awe of people who go that extra mile to make something delicious. Kudos to you and your mom!

  2. Sharon, it’s always lots of fun when we cook. I see you left out the picture of little dough men you made with the mushroom hats.

    Thank you to Ede, for enlightening us to the traditional way of making soba; to Larry, for sending me the wonderful little cookbook. And I can’t forget my ash suppliers, Jeff, Al & Peggy – thanks!

  3. What a great post. Thanks for taking the time to post pictures as well. It has made it so much clearer. Off to try it...

  4. Hi! What an amazing post!!! I've made Okinawa Soba from scratch, but without the ash. I'm definitely going to try it your way next time! ;) BTW, where was this Kishimoto Soba place you went to? Do you remember? And if it's ok to ask, what is the title of the cookbook your Mom received from her friend? I'd like to find it for my sisters. thanks!!!

  5. Wonderful! Thank you for taking the time to post all this. I used to live in Okinawa and would KILL for a good bowl of Oki Soba! Don't know that I'll do the homemade noodles anytime soon, but at least I've got directions on how to do so now!

  6. I used the recipe for rafute; amazing!!! Thanks so much. What is the cookbook that the
    Recipe came from?

  7. Please open a Okinawa Soba restaurant in NYC!! I would go everyday! I'm from Okinawa and am currently living in NY. How much I miss it...

  8. Aloha,
    I'm Manju I'm so tickled you liked my mom's rafute recipe! I'm going to try making the soba noodles as you describe here. I've always wondered what made the noodles so chewy -- so different from Italian style pasta or even Chinese noodles. Right now we're still buying the fresh (well, frozen here in DC) ones from Honolulu but I can't wait to try my hand at making these... thanks so much for posting this!

  9. I have just returned from Okinawa and immediately recognised the Kishimoto restaurant you talk about.

    It is great and well worth the 30 minute wait!

  10. Thank you so much for posting this. I used to live in okinawa from 1994-2001 and have been looking for a good okinawa soba recipe. When I miss the island I can't help but remember the good, hearty bowls of okinawa soba I used to gulp down. Thanks again

  11. Thank you for posting the rafute recipe. I'm making it based on your instructions as I write this post. I used to live in Guam and frequented this soba-ya owned by this Okinawan lady and it's where I used to get my Okinawa soba or Niku soba fix, sometimes, omu-rice. I actually found Okinawa Soba fresh noodle packets, ready to heat and serve at Mitsuwa in NJ. I will surely enjoy combining both while I enjoy this comfort food that I haven't had for a decade.

  12. Aaaah, Okinawa Soba, there's nothing like it!
    We just returned from Okinawa and could get enough of that wonderful stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I must say THANK YOU!!! now i can taste again the amazing flavour of okinawa soba awwwwwwwww!!!

  14. Great information! When I was in Okinawa I used to go to Hamaya Soba on the Sunabe Seawall in Chatan. They used a different cut of pork in their soup; it seemed to have some type of cartilage attached to it. Does anyone know what that type of pork is called?

  15. Scott,

    You were probably eating nankotsu soki soba. Nankotsu means cartilage. It is a different type of meat, but they stew it so long that the cartilage becomes soft and edible. It's my favorite soba to eat when I go home to Okinawa.

  16. I wanted to let you know that you are awesome! Thanks so much for sharing this recipe. My wife has had a hard time over the last couple of years. She has had over 15 seizures a month with tons of meds. Her memory is shot and made living a normal life impossible. She had 2 surgeries in October 2011 and she has not had any seizure since! I used your recipe for her birthday and even made the noodles with ash water. MAN THEY WERE GREAT!!!! To see my wife smile was worth the 8.5 hours it took to make all of this (I am sure everyone else could have done it quicker but it's okay) We had our family :wife two teen boys one teen girl and a 7yr old boy and myself and our friends :husband wife teen boy and teen girl. So I had to triple the recipe and they ate everything! Thank you for giving my wife a great birthday! I would give you a hug that required you take several days to recuperate if possible. I know I am blabbing but I really wanted to let you know that because of you I was able to give the best birthday present ever.God Bless!!

  17. Best email ever, Daddydano. Thank you so much. And that 8.5 hours sounds about right. :-)
    All the best to you and your family.

  18. What part does the pork bones play, when the water they are cooked in--a broth--is thrown out, and fresh water is used to cook the pork? No further use is mentioned regarding the bones.
    Thanks. Steve

  19. Yes, you need to get rid of the first batch of water. You would think it would add flavor, but the first go around, you're getting rid of the blood and scum. There's a lot of blood and scum.

  20. thanks so much for this soba recipe. i've saved it in my "favorites" for a long time. i've started my own "oki doki" food truck here in tampa, and going to serve soki soba,as well with the rafute, harumaki, and gyoza...okinawan comfort food. i lived on okinawa for more than 20 years and just loved the soba. i hope i can do it justice and have all my customers enjoy the soba as much as i did growing up. i'm getting my soba noodles from sun noodle in hawaii...they are great, and making the broth myself, as well as soki and rafute. great recipes!!!!

  21. Just ate this wonderful recipe. My feet hurt and my stomach is full. As an amature chef and a full time Mr. Mom, this is the most satisfied I have felt outside the work force, Thank you.

  22. Thank you! My wife and I lived in Okinawa for 3 years and used to get our O-soba from a place near Kadena that was just a sliding door on the side of a building. No sign. Nothing. Best O-soba ever! This recipe comes very close and is super yummy. O-soba remains one of my all-time favorites!

  23. You're the BEST!!! Ahhh, I have missed soba sooo much since I left Okinawa! One of my coworkers just recently sent me a box of Okinawa soba noodles and dashi AND koregusu! I am making the rafute now, per your incredible recipe and can't wait to devour it later! I told my husband, now that I've found a legitimate recipe for the noodles and dashi, I think I will have to make this our family New Years meal! Yum yum yum!! Thank you!

  24. Is it possible to just use lye water instead of this homemade ash water? And if so how much of it would I use. I know you're only supposed to use lye water sparingly.

  25. My Mom used to be the soba maker in her family on Kumejima. She just passed away on Dec. 12th so I'm going to make soba in her honor tomorrow.

    She never showed me the full recipe so I'm very thankful for this recipe. One of my friends from work gave me a huge Ziplock bag full of hardwood ash so I'm starting tonight for Toshi-Koshi Soba, Okinawa-style.

  26. I like too much Okinawa soba. If you have no time for cooking okinawa soba I found this shop, they delivery okinawa soba around the world !

  27. Oh my goodness, THANK YOU for posting this! I spent a few weeks in the Yaeyama islands several months ago, and was mesmerized by the food-- and so disheartened at how hard it is to find it in major US or European cities. And most of the cookbooks are all "Okinawan diet" plans that don't resemble what I ate at all.

    Now to find a friend with a woodburning stove who doesn't pour propane all over the logs to start them....