By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the sixth in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed eluding Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Mara and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; and May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle.
For someone who loves pasta as much as I do — all shapes, sizes and varying international specialties — you might think I would have tried making linguine, ravioli or some other shape from scratch.
That was never the case, until I took a cooking class at Taste of Okinawa and made soba noodles by hand. It not only took longer from start to finish than I was expecting — about three hours — but was far more labor-intensive as well.
As with the other cooking classes I’ve taken in Asia (for my experience in Chiang Mai Thailand, see my post from May 1, 2017, and for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, see December 12, 2016), we started with a market visit. Taste of Okinawa staffer Rina led us among the stalls and aisles to pick up some ingredients we’d use to make our dinner.
And as with my other classes, Taste of Okinawa was happy to accommodate dietary restrictions (it’s helpful to notify in advance if making this request). Instructors need time to prepare a different broth, for example, made from bonita flakes, instead of the usual pork-based stock.
I had been to the Makishi market earlier in the week and seen a brownish, oblong-shaped item neatly stacked in rows. I had an idea what this was and I picked up a sample to smell it. The vendor was not happy with my having done so, and I quickly replaced it and apologized.
But my nose confirmed that it was dried fish of some sort.
At the market, Rina refined my identification, saying that this was dried bonita, one of the key ingredients in Okinawan cooking, and indeed in Japanese cooking overall.
At the vendor we visited who sold this bonita, a machine made quick work of shaving the rock-hard dried fish into wispy paper-thin flakes, an orange-pink in color. The flakes were packed in a plastic bag and we left for the next stop.
There, Rina picked out dried mozuku, a brownish, thin-stranded, nutrition-rich seaweed that we would use in making a side dish. Deep-fried Japanese doughnuts were also purchased, and this would become our dessert.
Back at Taste of Okinawa, staff had prepped recipe ingredients into small glass bowls and other containers while we were at the market.
The interior furnishings were very simple. Two long communal tables were positioned along the length of the left wall, framed by wooden chairs on both sides. On the right, a small bar, craft beer taps, stovetop, refrigerator, oven and food prep area occupied the space.
We donned colorful aprons, and stood at our individual stations: three on one side of one of the long wooden tables, the other two facing us.
Our group included an Okinawa-based Marine brigadier general, his wife, his sister visiting from California and her adult daughter, and me.
Instructor Zoey, a Taiwanese-born, self-described “highly competitive” young woman, stood at the head of the table and gave us a brief summary of her culinary background (more on that later) before we began our soba noodle production.
The first step required little effort from our two teams: We briefly shook close-topped plastic bags to aerate the white wheat flour. (Some soba is made from buckwheat.)
Next, in a small bowl, baking soda and salt were blended with one egg and a little bit of water. This differs from a basic Italian pasta recipe, which generally is just flour and eggs.
In a large mixing bowl, a well was made in the center of the flour and the egg-water mixture was added. By hand, we took turns bringing in the flour from the well’s sides until the ingredients held together in a ball.
Then, with the dough separated into five portions, we each began kneading our ball on a floured surface for about 15 minutes. Zoey said the texture we were looking to achieve was soft and smooth “like a baby’s bum” and enough give to leave a small indentation when pressed lightly with a fingertip.
The dough was placed back into a plastic bag to rest for about 30 minutes at about 115 degrees Fahrenheit (45 Celsius), in this case, a warmed microwave oven.
Meanwhile, we worked on the other dishes for our meal. The mozuku was reconstituted in a bowl of water, and we practiced our knife skills by making julienne strips of cucumber, carrots and shiitake mushrooms; cut pieces of green onions; and grated ginger. The mozuku dressing consisted of sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and bonita stock.
The mozuku was drained, the dressing mixed in and then garnished with the cucumber and grated ginger.
Working with the dough again, Zoey instructed us to roll it out into a rectangular shape to about 1/8-inch thick. This was pretty tricky, even with an elastic dough, and my rectangle was decidedly lopsided.
Then, accordion-like, the dough was folded back over itself three times to form four layers.
Our last step was the hardest and most time-consuming: Cutting the folded dough into (in theory) identical 1/4-inch-thick pieces, then unraveling the layers — using as much extra flour as needed — and piling the strands on a cutting board.
The more exact the better, but since the end product is a tangle of noodles, consistency is a goal, not an obsession. The point of slicing the dough so thinly is that when the strands are placed in a large pot of boiling water to cook for 60 to 90 seconds, they will double in size.
After the noodles were cooked, we placed them on a rimmed baking sheet, poured a bit of vegetable oil over the top and stirred continuously with chopsticks for a minute or two to help separate them as they cooled.
The noodles were given a quick dip in water to rinse off the oil.
Finally, it was time to make a bowl of Okinawa soba soup. In my case, it was vegetarian, and using tofu where the others had pork belly, which was prepared in advance by staff.
So, my soba noodles were swimming in bonita broth, topped with pieces of tofu, pressed fish cake slices, green onions and red ginger.
Mmmmmmmmm. Was the effort worth it? Absolutely. The noodles were slightly chewy, and oh, so easy to slurp (as is customary in Japanese cuisine). I had an extra portion of noodles leftover, which went into a plastic bag and were stored in the mini-fridge in my hotel room overnight. I had them plain for breakfast the next morning. That might not sound appetizing, but they were!
Taste of Okinawa, when not hosting afternoon cooking classes, is also a craft beer bar and restaurant. Zoey, who has had a strong interest in cooking since she was a preteen, describes the menu as fusion cooking with Italian and French influences and “my own personality in it.”
While we were talking after class, she was preparing orders of nachos, salads, and fish and chips for the early evening patrons.
Born in Taipei, Zoey has been cooking since she was 7, and calling up her grandmother to get help and advice while her parents were at work.
By 11, she was in a bookstore writing down recipes from a Jamie Oliver cookbook — while not understanding much English. Computer-generated translation helped her make sense of her notes.
After attending a cooking high school in Taiwan, and her interest in bettering her English only increasing, she wrote up a business plan at 21 and asked her parents to help support her while she worked in kitchens abroad, including Spain, gaining experience and widening her culinary horizons.
Eventually, she landed in Paris in 2013 and enrolled in an intensive, nine-month course at Le Cordon Bleu. Having already spent years catering dinners and events to promote her mother’s antique jewelry business, Zoey didn’t find Le Cordon Bleu overly taxing, but it did help her to refine her palate and culinary vision.
“If you know ingredients, how to choose it, how to use it, that’s the best cuisine,” she told me.
From friends of friends, she heard about an opening at a new place — Taste of Okinawa. She arrived in June 2016, helping to design a menu and create the first cooking classes.
She’s planning to add a class in Chinese to the one she already teaches in English. Classes are also available in Japanese.
I had a lot of fun making soba noodles. When I next attempt this at home, I’ll be sure to budget a full afternoon and remind myself as I’m struggling to unravel my noodles of the deliciousness to come.
Quick reference: Classes can be booked in advance online. Adults, 6,500 ¥ (about $59), children, 3,500 ¥ (about $32). Cold jasmine tea is included in the price, and craft beer and other beverages are available for purchase. Inquire about a group rate for more than 10. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. A booklet of recipes is included to take home. Class: Tuesdays-Sundays: 3:30-6:30 p.m. Restaurant hours: 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays for snacks and light food; 7-11 p.m. for full menu. The website has a printable map and detailed instructions for finding the location. 1-6-21 Tsuboya, Naha, Okinawa. Phone: +81-98-943-6313; website: tasteof.okinawa