Noodle popular in Japan takes off in Basin City

BASIN CITY -- Akila Inouye clenched some flour in his hand. When he opened his fist, the powder formed an impression of his fingers.

In broken English, he made his point.

"Edges," he said. "It has edges."

Then he grabbed a handful from another bag. When he opened his hand, the flour collapsed into a silky pile. That flour would not be moist enough for nutritious soba noodles.

He and Sonoko Sakai are on a journey to find high-quality buckwheat flour in America to feed their shared passion for making soba noodles. Their search took them to Basin City last week.

Inouye, 57, is a soba master. He has studied making the noodles for two decades and is a founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo, he said. He lives in the nearby town of Kawagoe.

Sakai, 55, a writer and soba artisan who now lives in California, wants to introduce Americans to soba noodles. Sakai was born in New York and raised in Tokoyo.

At Washington Producers, owner Darrel Otness showed them raw buckwheat in its black hulls. The wheat is shipped to Japan, where the hulls are removed and the nuts inside are milled into flour.

Washington is the leading producer of buckwheat in the U.S. and exported $11 million worth of the grain to Japan in 2009, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

But there is no soba-grade buckwheat flour mill in the United States, Sakai said.

So Sakai and Inouye make regular trips to Japan and bring back a hundred or more pounds of buckwheat flour each time. She said they pay up to $1,000 in excess baggage fees to bring the flour into the states. To save on the fees, Sakai sometimes leaves her clothes at her parents' house in Japan instead filling her suitcases with flour.

Yet the buckwheat is grown in Washington. But the grain begins losing its moisture as soon as the hull is removed in Japan, and the flour gets dry quickly. Buckwheat flour available in the U.S. is sometimes two years old, Sakai said, and often doesn't have the moisture necessary for soba noodles.

"It's fine for pancakes," she said.

Sakai and Inouye have been holding classes on the art of making soba noodles in California that she said have drawn hundreds of curious cooks.

But the pair must get buckwheat flour for the classes.

Sakai and Inouye traveled to Basin City to see if there was a way to get the buckwheat milled in the U.S.

Buckwheat is a little used grain that offers nutrition other grains don't. It is gluten-free, high in protein and fiber, and low in fat.

"The nutritional value of buckwheat is about to be discovered," Sakai said.

Area farmers already know the value of buckwheat. Otness has 10 farmers who grow buckwheat as a second crop.

The grain has a short growing season -- just 75 days -- and farmers plant it after they have harvested their main crops. It brings in extra cash and enriches the soil.

Buckwheat also is grown in Japan, but the Mid-Columbia buckwheat is grown in irrigated fields, which improves its flavor.

"Maybe if we find a grower here, we could get it milled here," Sakai said.

In Japan, she said a soba master often finds a farmer and gets fresh buckwheat from them. Otness considers the possibility for a moment before shaking his head.

"There's a huge potential to get North America to eat buckwheat," Otness said. "But I'm not entrepreneurial enough to change how Americans eat."

But Otness did agree to sell the pair small amounts -- 5 pounds to start with -- of the raw buckwheat. Sakai said she plans to mill the flour by hand for now.

"It's a start," Sakai said.